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We sit at the doorstep of multiple revolutions in robotic, genetic, information, and communication technologies, whose powerful interactions promise social and environmental transformations we are only beginning to understand. How can we anticipate their impacts and ensure that these new technologies help move us in a more sustainable direction?
Environmentalism and the Technologies of Tomorrow is a collection of essays by leading scientists, technologists, and thinkers that examine the nature of current technological changes, their environmental implications, and possible strategies for the transition to a sustainable future. It offers a baseline understanding of new technological developments, as well as important insights for moving beyond business-as-usual by developing more anticipatory approaches to environmental protection and more comprehensive strategies for promoting the transformation of technology.
Among the contributors are Brad Allenby, David Bell, Steward Brand, Michael Braungart, Lester Brown, Joanne Ciulla, Denis Hayes, Hazel Henderson, Amory Lovins, William McDonough, Gary Marchant, David Ronfeldt, John Seely-Brown, Gus Speth, and Timothy Sturgeon.
Creating a Sustainable Future: Are We Running out of Time?
James Gustave Speth
After hearing hours of scientific testimony on the Clean Air Act, Senator Ed Muskie once asked with frustration, "Aren't there any one-armed scientists?" The panel looked perplexed. Muskie continued, "We've had too much of 'on the one hand, on the other hand!' "
I'm afraid my assessment of the environmental challenges and opportunities ahead will have a little of that two-armed flavor. I want to begin by reviewing several disturbing trends and conclude on a hopeful note, reviewing some recent developments that are indeed very encouraging.
The gravity of emerging global-scale environmental problems was communicated clearly to policymakers in the Global 2000 Report to the president at the end of the Carter administration. Other reports—from the United Nations Environment Programme, the Worldwatch Institute, the National Academy of Sciences, and elsewhere—were saying much the same around this time. Global 2000 got some things wrong, but on the big issues like population growth, species extinction, deforestation, desertification, and global warming its projections of what would happen if societies did not take corrective action have turned out to be all too accurate.
In other words, our political leaders were on notice twenty years ago that there was a new environmental agenda, more global, more threatening, and more difficult than the one that spurred the environmental awakening of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today, our information on global environmental trends is far more complete and sophisticated, but it is not more reassuring. Here are a few examples:
Half the tropical forests are gone, and non–Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development (OECD) countries are projected to lose another 15 percent of their forests by 2020. But this data gives an unduly rosy picture. The cumulative impacts of fire, El Niño–driven drought, and fragmentation in major forest areas such Brazil and Borneo exacerbate the effects of deforestation. And much of what's left is under contract for logging.
A quarter of all bird species are extinct, and another 12 percent are listed as threatened. Also threatened are 24 percent of mammals, 25 percent of reptiles and amphibians, and 30 percent of fish species. The rate of extinctions today is estimated at one hundred to one thousand times the background rate.
We are now appropriating about 40 percent of nature's net photosynthetic product annually. We are consuming half the available fresh water. Most people will soon live in water-stressed areas. We are fixing nitrogen at rates that far exceed natural rates and among the many consequences of the resulting overfertilization are fifty dead zones in the oceans, including one in the Gulf of Mexico that is the size of New Jersey.
In 1960, 5 percent of marine fisheries were either fished to capacity or overfished. Today 70 percent of marine fisheries are in this condition.
Hardest hit of all are freshwater ecosystems around the globe.
Over these chilling descriptions of biotic impoverishment looms the biggest threat of all—global climate change. Few Americans appreciate how close we are to the widespread devastation of the American landscape. The best current estimate is that climate change will make it impossible for about half the American land to sustain the types of plants and animals now on that land. A huge portion of our protected areas—everything from wooded lands held by community conservancies, to national parks, forests, and wilderness—is now threatened. In one projection, the much-loved maple-beech-birch forests of New England will simply disappear. In another, much of the South-east will become a huge grassland savannah unable to support forests because it will be too hot and dry.
We know what is driving these global trends. There has been more population growth in the few decades since astronauts first walked on the moon than occurred across all the millennia before. It took all of history for the world economy to grow to $6 trillion in 1950. Today, it grows by more than that every five to ten years.
Looking ahead, the world economy is poised to double and then double again in the lifetimes of today's students. We could not stop this growth if we wanted to, and most of us would not stop it if we could. Half the world's people live on less than two dollars per day. They both need and deserve something better. Economic expansion at least offers the potential for better lives, though its benefits in recent decades have been highly skewed.
The OECD estimates that its members' CO2 emissions will go up by 33 percent between 1995 and 2020. Motor vehicle miles traveled in OECD countries are expected to rise by 40 percent by 2020. The U.S. Energy Information Agency predicts a 62 percent increase in global CO2 emissions over the same period.
The implications of all this are profound. Let me put it this way: we are entering the endgame in our relationship with the natural world. The current Nature Conservancy campaign has an appropriate name: they are seeking to protect the Last Great Places. We are in a rush to the finish. Soon, metaphorically speaking, whatever is not protected will be paved.
We dominate the planet today as never before. We have a tremendous impact on its great life support systems. Nature as something before and beyond us is gone. We are in a radically new moral position because we are at the planetary controls.
Looking back, it cannot be said that my generation did nothing in response to Global 2000 and similar alerts. The two basic things we've done are research and negotiate. The scientific outpouring of these twenty years has been remarkable and framework conventions have been established on climate, desertification, and biodiversity, to mention the most notable ones.
The problem is that these framework conventions do not compel action. In general, international environmental law suffers from vague agreements, poor enforcement, and understaffing. We still have a long, long way to go to make these treaties effective. A deeper question is whether we are even on the right track with the recent emphasis on the convention and treaty approach. Were we, mesmerized by the Montreal Protocol, launched on the wrong track altogether?
It would be comforting to think that we have spent these twenty years getting ready and are now prepared to act—comforting but wrong, as is readily apparent from President Bush's abandonment of the Kyoto Protocol. Unfortunately, the political leadership today does not care about these issues and the public does not seem to remember much that we learned in the 1970s.
In sum, the problems are moving from bad to worse, we are unprepared to deal with them, and we presently lack the leadership to even get prepared.
Now, on the other hand, I want to sketch seven transitions needed for the overall shift to sustainability and ask whether there are signs of hope in each area. I believe that there are.
The first is the need for an early demographic transition to a stable world population. Here there is definite progress. The midrange projection for 2050 was recently 10 billion people, now it is 9 billion. Analyses suggest an escalation of proven approaches could reduce this number to 7.3 billion, with global population leveling off at 8.5 billion. The main need here is adequate funding for the internationally agreed-upon Cairo Plan of Action.
The second transition is the human development transition to a world without mass poverty, a world of greater economic and social equity. We need this transition not only because, over much of the world, poverty is a destroyer of the environment, but also because the only world that will work is one in which the aspirations of poor people and poor nations for fairness and justice are being realized. The views of developing countries in international negotiations on the environment are powerfully influenced by their underdevelopment, concern about the high costs of compliance, and distrust of the intentions of already industrialized countries. Sustained and sustainable human development provides the only context in which there can be enough confidence, trust, and hope to ground the difficult measures needed to realize environmental objectives.
There is good news to report on the human development front. Since 1960, life expectancy in developing regions has increased from forty-six years to sixty-two. Child death rates have fallen by more than half. Adult literacy rose from 48 percent in 1970 to 72 percent in 1997. The share of people enjoying at least medium human development in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Index rose from 55 percent in 1975 to 66 percent in 1997.
On the policy front, a wonderful thing has happened. The international development assistance community has come together with a concerted commitment to the goal of halving the incidence of absolute poverty by 2015, and all governments in the Millennium Assembly of the United Nations have endorsed this goal. Eliminating large- scale poverty is not a crazy dream. It is within our reach. However, as with population, a principal threat to achieving the goal is declining development assistance.
The third transition is a transformation in technology to a new generation of environmentally benign technologies—to technologies that sharply reduce the consumption of natural resources and the generation of residual products per unit of prosperity.
We need a worldwide environmental revolution in technology—a rapid ecological modernization of industry and agriculture. The prescription is straightforward but immensely challenging: the only way to reduce pollution and resource consumption while achieving economic growth is to bring about a wholesale transformation in the technologies that today dominate manufacturing, energy, transportation, and agriculture. We must rapidly abandon the twentieth-century technologies that have contributed so abundantly to today's problems and replace them with more advanced twenty-first- century technologies designed with environmental sustainability in mind.
The good news here is that across a wide front sustainable technologies are either available or soon will be. From 1990 to 1998, when oil and natural gas use grew at a rate of 2 percent annually, and coal consumption grew not at all, wind energy grew at an annual rate of 22 percent and photovoltaics at 16 percent. I use an energy example because transformation of the energy sector must rank as the highest priority.
The fourth transition is a transition in consumption from unsustainable patterns to sustainable ones. Here one very hopeful sign is the emergence of product certification and green labeling and public support for it. This trend started with the certification of wood products as having been produced in sustainably managed forests and has now spread to fisheries. Many consumers care, and that is driving change.
The fifth transition is a market transition to a world in which we harness market forces and in which prices reflect environmental costs. The revolutions in technology and consumption patterns just discussed will not happen unless there is a parallel revolution in pricing. The corrective most needed now is environmentally honest prices. Doing the right thing environmentally should be cheaper, not more expensive, as it so often is today.
Here one of the most hopeful developments is the tax shift idea adopted in Germany. Moving in four stages, starting in 1999, the policy is to shift the tax burden from something one wants to encourage—work and the wages that result—to something one wants to discourage—fossil fuel consumption and the pollution that results.
The sixth transition is a transition in governance to responsible, accountable governments and to new institutional arrangements, public and private, that focus energies on the transition to sustainability. UNDP estimates that today about 70 percent of the people in the developing world live under relatively pluralistic and democratic regimes. Progress on this front is sine qua non.
At the international level, there are governance regimes that have worked: the Montreal Protocol for protecting the ozone layer, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) for regulating trade in endangered species, International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) for pollution from ships. International regulatory processes can be made to work.
And at the local level there is a remarkable outpouring of initiatives: the smart growth movement, sustainable communities and the "new urbanism," state and local greenplans, environmental design in buildings, and innovative state regulatory approaches.
The certification movement mentioned above is an example of still another pathbreaking phenomenon: the rise of information-rich non-regulatory governance, even nongovernmental governance. The forest certification movement is occurring with governments watching from the sidelines. A long list of techniques: the U.S. Toxics Release Inventory and other "right to know" disclosures, third-party auditing, and market creation by government entities and consumers—all coupled with the Internet and an increasingly sophisticated international nongovernmental organization (NGO) community—can make a powerful contribution.
Meanwhile, in the area of corporate governance and leadership, we are seeing some extraordinary developments:
Seven large companies—DuPont, Shell, BP Amoco, and Alcan among them—have agreed to reduce their CO2 emissions 15 percent below their 1990 levels by 2010.
Today, more than $2 trillion reside in socially and environmentally screened funds. The number of screened mutual funds has grown dramatically in recent years.
Eleven major companies—DuPont, General Motors, and IBM among them—have formed the Green Power Market Development Group and committed to develop markets for 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy over the next decade.
Home Depot, Lowes, Andersen, and others have agreed to sell wood (to the degree it's available) only from sustainably managed forests certified by an independent group against rigorous criteria. Unilever, the largest processor of fish in the world, has agreed to the same regarding fish products.
These are among the most hopeful, optimism-generating things I've seen lately.
We are thus far beyond the old days of environment as pollution control compliance. Environment is becoming central to business strategic planning. Companies are beginning to develop sustainable enterprise strategies that are leading to new processes and products and new profits. The war between business and environment should be over, with both sides winning.
Human Culture and Consciousness
Finally, there is the most fundamental transition of all—a transition in culture and consciousness. The potential is evident in great social movements that societies have already experienced, such as the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement. It seems to me at least possible that we are seeing the beginning of another historic change of consciousness: in the young people on the streets of Seattle, in the far-reaching and unprecedented initiatives being taken by some private corporations, in the growth of NGOs and their innovations, in scientists speaking up and speaking out, and in the increasing prominence of religious and spiritual leaders in environmental affairs.
These are all hopeful signs, but to be honest we must conclude that we are at the early stages of the journey to sustainability. Meanwhile, the forward momentum of the drivers of environmental deterioration is great. We are moving rapidly to a swift, pervasive, and appalling deterioration of our natural world. Time is the most important variable in the equation of the future. What we will do tomorrow we should have done yesterday. Only a response that in historical terms would come to be seen as revolutionary is likely to avert these changes.
Excerpted from Environmentalism & the Technologies of Tomorrow by Robert Olson, David Rejeski. Copyright © 2004 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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