Genesis of Eden

Genesis Home

Brown, Lester; Flavin, Chris; Postel, Sandra 1991
Saving the Planet,
WW Norton New York ISBN0-393-30823-5

NOTE: This extract is included as an essential reading for transforming the world. You are requested to purchase the book yourself as it is, without question, essential reading material.

Struggle for a New World from SAVING THE PLANET

In the preceding chapters, are essential instruments, they are unlikely to be effective unless accompanied by major political changes. Ultimately, the struggle for a livable world is about overcoming concentrations of economic power, about the universal human yeaming for political freedoms, and about the fight for human rights and dignity. As long as any of these is systematically denied, the struggle is unlikely to succeed. 'Me transition to a new world will not be orderly or predictable. The needed economic and technological changes are themselves profound. But the social and political transformations are likely to be even more wrenching and difficult. 'Though it is tempting to think the prerequisites of a sustainable society can be decreed-two-child families or soil-conserving agriculture, for example-the actual process of change is far more complex. Population size is unlikely to stabilize without access to health care for women; likewise, fair distribution of land makes sustainable agriculture more feasible. Addressing such issues requires a revolution at many levels-from local communities to global institutions. Grassroots groups, national govemments, and intemational organizations all have roles to play in forging a sustainable society. Human institutions, many of which have been in place for decades or centuries, need to be reshaped in a matter of years. Some of the most far-reaching changes are coming from the grassroots as individuals see their lives and their relationships with nature in a new light. As a result, they are making changes in their life-styles, and are insisting on changes in public policy. Environmental activism has swept the world in the past decade-from Sweden to Senegal, from Moscow to Manaus. Govemments at every level are being pushed by thousands of citizens' groups to pursue environmental reforms. In developing countries, the proliferation of grassroots organizations has been extraordinary-a response to the failure of govemments to cope with growing social and environmental problems. Their missions range from providing basic services to the poor, such as health care for women, to protecting the natural environments and livelihoods of rural people, as India's Chipko (tree hugger) movement or Kenya's Greenbelt organization has done. As Alan Duming wrote in a 1989 study, "These people understand global degradation in its rawest forms. To them, creeping destruction of ecosystems has meant lengthening workdays, failing livelihoods, and deteriorating health. And it has pushed them to act." I No intemational agency charts the growth in grassroots action the way it might trends in oil or grain production. But one thing is clear from the country studies and anecdotal information available: the surge in grassroots activity-particularly among the poorest segments of today's societies-is a remarkable and vastly underreported phenomenon. According to one estimate, more than 100,000 such organizations exist, with 100 million members in the Third World alone. The grinding, growing poverty and accompanying political instability in developing countries do not preclude serious concem about the environment. Arguably, they accentuate it.2 In the Philippines, a country with an annual per capita income of $680, the loss of the country's once verdant forests has forced environmental issues onto a crowded national agenda-led by grassroots organizations whose membership is estimated at 5 million. During the late eighties, for example, dozens of peasant organizations, representing 1.5 million Filipinos, joined forces to promote a People's Agrarian Reform Code, a response to the failure of the govemment's land reform efforts. It is intended to abolish absentee landownership and to provide support to peasants who want to acquire land. The idea is to encourage wide replication of the initiatives pioneered by individual rural groups, including introduction of organic farming techniques and reforestation of coastal mangroves .3 In Bangladesh, with a per capita income of just $160 per year, millions of rural poor are forced by a shortage of arable land to live at sea level in areas where periodic flooding is inevitable. The loss of more than 100,000 lives in the cyclone-related flooding of May 1991 was just the latest in a series of environmental tragedies. But while the intemational community focuses on emergency relief, Bangladesh's burgeoning grassroots movement is providing some answers to the country's most intractable problems. The Proshika Centre for Human Development, for instance, concentrates on alleviating poverty in rural areas. Proshika has helped villagers use hardy native seed varieties, relying on crop rotation and the intercropping of rice, vegetables, and fruit trees. By applying fewer chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the farmers also save money. Proshika has spawned more than 700 women's gardening groups, as well as an extensive roadside forestry program.' 'Mose who seek to protect the resources on which the poor depend often must confront powerful political and economic interests-from Brazil's armed forces to India's influential construction industry. When dissenters who challenge the status quo do not have their rights guaranteed, they are often evicted from their lands, threatened, or killed. The 1988 murder of Amazonian rubber tapper leader Chico Mendes is but the most publicized of these tragic events. In Malaysia, activists who fought to protect the tropical forests of Sarawak have been jailed without trial for extended periods. Thus for environmental reform efforts to succeed, questions of political participation, freedom of information, land distribution, human rights, and empowerment of women must also be addressed.5 Coinciding with and in some cases flowing from the explosion in grassroots organizations are a plethora of citizens' democracy movements. In Eastem Europe, for example, the political revolutions of 1989 were preceded by a host of citizen actions, many provoked by environmental concems, others tied to churches and human rights groups, but all demanding a say in govemments that denied them access. In the Soviet Union, thousands of such organizations have arisen in the last few years, stimulating a multifaceted political dialogue .6 Around the world, the struggles for democratic expression and environmental sustainability are inextricably linked. To take one example, the destruction of the teak forests of Myanmar (formerly Burma)-the most extensive in Asia-is promoted by a military junta that seized power from an elected govemment in 1989. The country's officer corps is believed to be profiting handsomely from the receipts eamed by selling these valuable hardwoods abroad. Unless the military's grip on power is loosened, millions of people whose futures are threatened by such practices will be powerless to stop them .7 Recently, there has been a heartening spread of democracy: In Eastern Europe, changes in Soviet foreign policy led to popular revolts, free elections, and independent govemments. In Africa, democracies are beginning to emerge in Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Togo, Zaire, and Zambia. In Latin America, military dictatorships were swept aside from the Panamanian Isthmus to Tierra del Fuego. Brazil now has a democratically minded president and an ecologist as environment minister. But authoritarian rule is still the norm in countries with more than one third of the world's people. And even where democracies exist in principle, a small elite often holds the reins of power, stifling dissent, arresting citizen activists, and sometimes rigging the electoral process. It is difficult to mount an environmental campaign in Malaysia, for example, when people can be arrested for marching as a group.1 'Me exercise of power is much rawer in developing than in rich nations. While U.S. corporations exert their muscle by financing political campaigns, chronic bribery and corruption provide more direct access in many countries. This leads to waste as well as the unsustainable use of resources. Zaire's problems, for instance, cannot be separated from the fact that its president reportedly amassed a fortune of $5 billion during his time in office-by systematically siphoning off funds eamed by exporting the country's natural resources.9 One problem shared by many govemments is wasteful spending on bloated military establishments. The U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) estimates that poor countries spent $146 billion on the military in 1989. Indeed, Third World military expenditures grew at the extraordinary rate of 7.5 percent annually from 1960 to 1987, while health, educational, and environmental programs were starved. Even with the demise of the cold war, old military conceptions of national security prevail in many nations. UNDP believes that by trimming unneeded military spending and cutting other wasteful programs, developing countries could free up $50 billion a year for real development. IO It is not only in developing countries that powerful economic interests feel threatened by the call for a new development path. In the United States, the oil, coal, and automobile industries strongly oppose policies to stabilize the climate by discouraging the use of fossil fuels. The power of such industries is based on their financial standing and the jobs they provide. But the hundreds of new industries and millions of jobs that could be created by energy policies to reduce greenhouse gases are not represented in the political process. T'he general public, which could benefit from the new climate policies, is not yet organized enough to push them through. In countries with democratic political systems, overcoming such barriers is a matter of political organizing, coalition building, and lobbying. Even in well-established democracies, however, some ingredients of full political participation are often not present. In much of Europe, the absence of right-to-know laws hinders citizen access to the information needed to promote enviromnental reforms. In the United States, the low rate of voting leaves many poor people unrepresented in legislatures. In japan, the dearth of citizens' groups and the four-decade-long rule of the liberal Democratic Party have kept the goverrunent insulated from the concems of its people. As national govemments begin to take action, new measures of intemational leadership will likely be developed. Whereas in the past, global status has been measured by the size of a nation's military arsenal or the dollar value of its gross national product, neither of these is a good indicator of progress toward the more fundamental goal of a sustainable society. Increasingly, credit will go to countries such as Germany, which now stands alone among major countries in its plans to cut carbon dioxide emissions substantially. In a world in which "power" is measured in terms of sustainability, and national security is partly a matter of environmental health, a country with energy conservation, recycling, and foreign aid programs as strong as Denmark's or Switzerland's looks pretty good. National govemment reforms are just the beginning of the institutional transformations needed to pursue a more sustainable path. The scientific community has the capacity to raise public understanding of environmental threats, as they have done so effectively on issues like ozone depletion. Educators have the ability to produce a generation of environmentally literate citizens, and the print and electronic media can spur the ongoing envirorunental education needed in an ever-changing world. 'Me business community also has a key role to play. Investment decisions will help determine whether an environmentally sustainable economic system emerges. Although corporations have traditionally fought against new pollution laws, many have adopted environmental goals and codes of responsibility in the past few years. McDonald's, for example, instituted a recycling program in 1991 that is intended to reduce waste 80 percent. Southem Califomia Edison, an electric utility company, has moved ahead of its own national govemment by announcing plans to cut carbon dioxide emissions 20 percent by 2010. Another crucial plank in the campaign for a healthier planet is reform at the intemational level. With the emergence of global environmental issues-stratospheric ozone depletion, oceanic pollution, and the loss of plant and animal species-worldwide cooperation has become essential. Environmental concems, more than any other, are a force binding the world's disparate societies into a global community. Despite the enormity of the challenge, there is reason for optimism about the capacity for cooperation. As the nineties begin, the cold war that dominated intemational affairs for four decades and led to the militarization of the world economy is over. With its demise, the East-West conflict that guided foreign policies and shaped the world for more than a generation is being cast aside. The battle to save the planet could replace the battle over ideology as the organizing theme of international affairs. If we begin to fashion a promising future for the next generation, efforts to reverse the degradation of the planet will become increasingly prominent. 13 For the first time since the emergence of the nationstate, all countries face the challenge of trying to unite around a common theme. 'Me global agenda is likely to become as much ecological as ideological, dominated by the relationship between ourselves and nature. The cold war was largely an abstraction, a campaign waged by strategic planners. In the new struggle, people everywhere will be involved directly: consumers trying to recycle their garbage, couples trying to decide whether to have a second child, and peasants trying to conserve their topsoil. The goal of the cold war was to get others to change their values and behavior, but winning the battle to save the planet depends on changing our own. The struggle for global environmental sustainability will not be conflict-free. The question of how to share responsibility for achieving a given goal, such as climate stabilization, could plague negotiations long after agreement is reached on the goal itself Indeed, as such deliberations proceed, sizable splits have already developed between rich and poor countries. The political stresses between East and West are likely to be replaced by the economic and environmental stresses between North and South, over such issues as the need to reduce Third World debt, access to markets in the industrial North, and allocation of the costs of environmental protection between rich and poor. Among the questions that emerge: Does responsible global citizenship mean that those living in wealthy countries have an obligation to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to the level of those living in poor countries? How should the cost of preserving the planet's diversity of life be allocated among countries? Should repayment of the "ecological debt" of wealthy countries-the environmental costs to the world of their industrializationbe used to ease the financial debt of developing countries? Tle struggle ahead was foreshadowed by the 1990 effort to agree on a rapid phaseout of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCS) to minimize further erosion of the stratospheric ozone layer. Faced with alarming new scientific information, 93 countries agreed to halt CFC production in industrial countries by the end of this decade, and in developing countries a decade later, going far beyond the 1987 Montreal Protocol that called only for a 50-percent cut. The agreement required extensive negotiation, in part because the scores of developing countries that so far have not contributed to ozone depletion were reluctant to give up their right to produce CFCs at some point in the future. 14 'ne key debate came over the Third World's rights to CFC substitutes developed by industrial-country corporations. European nations proposed a $240-million intemational fund to facilitate technology transfer, which brought support for the phaseout from developing countries, including India and China, the world's two most populous nations. However, the agreement was nearly scuttled by the United States, which has recently opposed additional multilateral funding of such initiatives. Only an eleventh-hour reversal by the U.S. govemment and a compromise on patent transfers saved the agreement. 15 Intemational diplomats face a full agenda of environmental treaties and agreements in the nineties. To be effective, they will need a solid grounding in ecology as well as politics and economics. At the global level, the Basel Convention on hazardous waste exports is still being ratified; the Law of the Sea treaty, originally negotiated in the seventies, continues to be implemented in bits and pieces; and the Antarctic Treaty regime has recently been reworked to establish a 50-year moratorium on mining and oil drilling. 16 Early negotiations have also begun on two important and interrelated new treaties covering forestry and biodiversity. The idea is to protect some of the world's remaining natural areas, mostly located in the tropics, with technical and financial assistance to be provided by richer nations. Neither treaty is likely to be finally approved before the mid-nineties. Meanwhile, scores of regional treaties are in place or being considered that do everything from controlling transboundary air pollution in Europe to allocating the use of surface and groundwater resources between the United States and Mexico. 17 Reaching agreement on a plan to stabilize climate is the ultimate challenge in environmental diplomacy. It is a problem that is global in scale and on which countries take divergent stances. Although industrial nations are the main contributors to the problem through their heavy use of fossil fuels, developing countries will also have to shift their development paths if the problem is ultimately to be resolved. Diplomatic discussions on climate stabilization have been under way since early 1989, and diplomats hope to have a draft treaty ready by June 1992. An Intergovemmental Negotiating Committee was set up in Geneva in late 1990 under the auspices of the U.N. General Assembly, and formal govemmental negotiating sessions are held every few months. Although most West European and several other industrial nations are already planning to limit carbon emissions, the United Statesthe largest offender-proposes to greatly increase its use of fossil fuels. @ile the Europeans have sought a strong treaty with specific commitments, the U.S. govemment continues to urge an agreement devoid of national targets or funding mechanisms. I I Developing countries are also divided on the question of how to deal with global warming. Although some small island nations are eager to see intemational commitments to slow climate change, China is planning to double its already heavy use of coal, a plan that would drive global greenhouse gas emissions upwards. Bridging such differences and providing developing countries with the technology and financing needed to pursue a new energy path will be crucial tests of the struggle for a new world order. 1

Some 30 island countries, among the most obvious victims of rising sea level from a warming of the planet, have recently banded together to press for a strong climate treaty. @cated mostly in the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific, these nations realize that their futures are shaped in part by the energy policies in larger industrial and developing economies. Leadership has come from the Republic of the Maldives, a collection of islands in the Indian Ocean where most of the land is barely two meters above the sea. Even a one-meter rise in sea level would, in the event of a storm surge, place the country's 140,000 residents in jeopardy. As countries search for new ways to address transnational threats, other ad hoc envirorunental alliances are likely to spring up. European countries could work together to save the region's deteriorating forests from acid rain, nations bordering the Baltic Sea could join to reverse its degradation, and countries in the Indian subcontinent could reforest the Himalayas. Such arrangements could one day become more numerous than the military alliances that have featured so prominently since World War Il. Another prime target for regional cooperation is in the management of water in the Middle East. The region draws upon three ma)or river systems: the Tigris-Euphrates, the Jordan, and the Nile. Supplies are tight in the latter two, and tensions over water are high in all three regions. With the area's population growing at nearly 3 percent a year, water security is elusive. Cooperation in managing supplies and sharing water-saving technologies could stave off shortages, and buy time to slow population growth.11 The United Nations will have to assume a more prominent role if environmental threats are to be addressed on a more comprehensive basis. For one thing, if the UN were a more effective peacekeeper, as its founders envisaged, resources could be freed up for enviromnental purposes. Beyond its traditional roles, the United Nations is at least trying to shoulder a growing responsibility for environmental protection efforts. The United Nations Envirorunent Programme (UNEP), founded in 1972, helped facilitate the ozone accords, for example . The mammoth U.N. system, with its six goveming bodies and 16 specialized agencies, is poorly equipped to deal with the challenge of environmentally sustainable development. The United Nations was founded in 1945, when environmental issues were hardly on the world agenda. Most U.N. agencies were formed in response to the problems of that era. There is, for instance, a large Intemational Atomic Energy Agency, reporting directly to the General Assembly, but developing countries are given little help in obtaining the energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies that could benefit them. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is promoting unsustainable agricultural practices and also spearheading a Tropical Forestry Action Plan that in some cases may accelerate deforestation rather than arrest it. While environmental programs have been cobbled to the agendas of U.N. agencies, most are underfunded or staffed by people with little training. UNEP was intended to right this imbalance, but it never received the kind of clear mission, authority, or status that U.N. agencies enjoy. Its weak mandate stems in part from the intemational community's wariness in the early seventies about the proliferation of U.N. agencies. For two decades, UNEP has operated on voluntary contributions-recently its annual budget has totaled just $40 million, half that of some private U.S. environmental groups. UNEP is limited to trying to coordinate the enviromnental programs of its stronger brethren, taking on functions only when asked by govemments to do So.24 T'he United Nations is only as strong as its member govemments allow. The extraordinary political mobilization orchestrated through the U.N. Security Council in the months leading up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War was an example of what can be accomplished when govermnents are committed to a clear goal. Unfortunately, in the environmental arena, govemments have been unwilling to provide sufficient funding or authority to U.N. bodies. Yet the inability of govemments to protect their citizens from global environmental threats has become frighteningly clear. National sovereignty has already been lost over such phenomena as ozone depletion and oceanic pollution. just as communities depend on a police force to control the streets, so can national govemments use intemational agencies to regain control over the global environment. Abraham Lincoln said that it is the role of govemments to do for people what they cannot do for themselves. Likewise, it is the role of the United Nations to do for all people what national govemments no longer can . The need for responsive U.N. environmental programs has become urgent: to collect important data, monitor treaty compliance, and provide financial support that allows the Third World to acquire the technology needed for a new development path. Moreover, environmentally sustainable development could be made part of the mandates of other agencies-particularly the U.N. Development Programme, which funds development projects, and FAO. It may also make sense to give a U.N. body the authority to order new initiatives when there is no time to wait for the negotiation of treaties. And it is crucial that intemational authorities be able to enforce such agreements. Accomplishing all of this and at the same time avoiding the inevitable tendency toward ineffectual, cumbersome intemational bureaucracies is a daunting task indeed. Although national govemments will remain the most powerful of human institutions for some time to come, their importance may already have peaked, as intemational institutions have taken on critical functions in recent years. Wether eliminating smallpox, fighting AIDS, or protecting the ozone layer, countries everywhere depend on the United Nations. The dependence is likely to grow as environmental monitoring and enforcement powers are vested in intemational agencies. Equally important are initiatives to decentralize power, in order to give local govemments and grassroots organizations greater ability to develop solutions to their problems. In recent years, citizens' environmental organizations have gone beyond their successful community projects to jointly lobby govemments and petition intemational agencies. Although it is embarrassing for a govemment to have its request for a loan undermined by the complaints of an indigenous group, it is only by bridging the vast chasm between the grassroots and intemational diplomacy that the pace of change can be sufficiently accelerated. Amazonian rubber tappers at World Bank meetings and Penan tribal people in the corridors of the LTN are important and encouraging signs of our times The struggle for a sustainable world extends from the villages to the board rooms, from local town councils to the General Assembly in New York. Nowhere will it be easy, and at no point can its outcome be firmly predicted. This uncertainty provides the excitement of our age-and the challenge. In the end, we must ask how badly we want a sustainable future for our children. At the current pace of change, they are more likely to inherit a world of collapsing ecosystems, cancer epidemics, falling living standards, and recurrent famine. We typically go to great lengths to provide for our children, investing heavily in education and health care. How much are we willing to invest in a habitable planet for them? At issue is whether we are collectively ready to make the effort, to undertake the struggle that is needed to bring a new world into being. As advertisers are fond of saying, this is a "limited time offer." It will soon expire.