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The Local Politics of Global Sustainability
By Thomas Prugh, Robert Costanza, Herman E. Daly
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2000 Island Press
All rights reserved.
What is worth saving? What forms of wealth are truly valuable? What, if anything, should be preserved today for future generations to enjoy, long after those who must decide are gone? These are the questions of sustainability, and every living human being daily answers them in a thousand ways, consciously or not. Achieving sustainability primarily means bringing these questions, and how we answer them, into the forefront of consciousness.
For serious environmentalists, sustainability issues are already uppermost. Environmentalists have long sought to protect certain features of the world—wilderness, other species, clean water, and so on—that they believed were important in the long term, as well as in the here and now. But the circumstances underlying the issues are changing, even for them. For a long time, economics figured little in the choices of what to protect. The human economy was small enough that it could operate as though it were separate from the environment. Today, however, humans making their daily livings extend their influence into every part of the natural world. Humans can hardly make any economic decision, profound or trivial, that has no effect on the environment. China's mammoth Three Gorges hydroelectric dam project (estimated cost: up to $79 billion) will flood nearly 1,500 cities, towns, and villages and vast expanses of prime farmland while displacing at least 1.2 million people. At the other end of the scale, leaving the bathroom lights on all night long can add a pound or two of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere that otherwise might have remained locked up in some electric utility's coal, and perhaps the globe warms a little faster as a result. As someone once said, we can never do just one thing. For instance, rabies has recently been eliminated in European foxes, but at the cost of an explosion in the fox population and the rise of other vulpine diseases, including a tapeworm that can infect and kill people.
Large or small, every act counts. This is a relatively new condition, and one we are not very well prepared to handle. The global human economy, driven by increases in population and wealth, has ballooned to the point where humans are crowding out, or controlling for their own use, a large and rapidly growing fraction of the natural world's renewable resource output. As a result, decisions about economic activity and environmental preferences have become profoundly interdependent. To make a decision in one arena is to make one in the other as well. A century ago, a government could set aside a few hundred square miles of wilderness with few economic repercussions. There was always plenty more land elsewhere. Now, with so much of the natural world stressed by human demand, there is not always "plenty more," of land or any other resource. It's not even clear there is enough. Today, proposals to create wilderness areas always trigger rancorous debate.
The strains we are imposing on the natural world mean that more and more decisions about it are guided by economics rather than by other considerations. The luxury of deciding to preserve some feature of the natural environment for any noneconomic reason—because it is beautiful or sacred, because it holds scientific interest, or simply because its existence and the fact that humans did not make it gives it intrinsic worth—is fast disappearing. Increasingly, we must preserve the natural environment because we need it to support our lifestyles and to ensure that we and our descendants will have some choice about the kind of lives we will lead.
So now the talk is about "sustainability." Because that is what this book is about, it ought not go any further without attempting a definition. The trouble is, sustainability is a big, sloppy term for a big, complex subject. Obviously, a thing or activity is sustainable if it can be kept going for a long time. To extend the definition to the environmental sustainability of human culture is more complicated. The easiest way is to start with what sustainability is not.
First, it is not about the survival of humanity as a species. "People are inexterminable—like flies and bedbugs," Robert Frost said. Strictly speaking, he was probably wrong; in the very long term, extinction is most species' fate and it may be humanity's, too. Short of a cataclysmic collision with a meteor, however, no plausible combination of ecological setbacks would completely wipe out Homo sapiens sapiens, as we optimistically call ourselves. Even serious environmental degradation or climate change would probably "only" lead to a much-reduced carrying capacity. That would result in many millions of premature deaths and the economic and cultural impoverishment of the survivors, and would be a terrible fate (all the more so for being avoidable). But the human species would continue. Humans have evolved over eons marked by repeated radical environmental change and appear to be not only well adapted to change but fundamentally formed by it.
Likewise, the existence of the biosphere is not in much danger, either, and that is not what "saving the planet" should be taken to mean. The biosphere has survived billions of years of evolution and upheaval. However, life's forms and expressions show a great deal of changeability. The fossil record is replete with evidence of epochal waves of biological transformation that have marched repeatedly across the face of the planet. Antarctica, for example, apparently only became the cruel icebox of popular perception about 15 million years ago; before that time, the ice came and went, alternating with vast forests.
The more scientists study the interactions of living creatures and the inanimate world around them, the more complex, dynamic, and unexpected those interactions appear. The familiar idea of a "balance of nature" has mostly been superseded by that of perpetual change. An ecosystem can appear static in the short run but can shift among multiple states over longer periods, depending on climatic and geological forces and the distribution of the plants, animals (including humans), and microorganisms that constitute its membership. Humans may find that ecosystems are varyingly hospitable as a result of these shifts, because it is easier to make a living in some than in others. But ecosystems rarely collapse and disappear like bursting bubbles and the global biosphere is unlikely to do so either.
If sustainability is not about humans or life in general dying out, what is it about? Judging by some of the hundreds of published definitions and commentaries, anything you like. As the examples below suggest, the concepts of sustainability and sustainable development have been stretched to the snapping point by attempts to make them fit many agendas. Definitions cover the entire spectrum. Some are straightforwardly technical:
[Sustainability is] the idea of organizing an economic system so that it produces an enduring flow of output.... It is both the output of the economy that needs to be sustained, and the underlying resource base that gives rise to that output.
Others are blunt:
To put it crassly, consumers want consumption sustained. Workers want jobs sustained.... Sustainability calls to and is being called for by many, from tribal peoples to the most erudite academics, from peasant farmers to agroindustrialists, from denim-clad eco-activists to pinstripe-suited bankers. With the term meaning something different to everyone, the quest for sustainable development is off to a cacophonous start.
Some aim for loftiness:
Sustainability is a process with a beginning but no end; and in considerable measure it is a social construct. It requires ... recognizing and respecting ecological integrity. It also requires a human vision for nature's duration, on terms hospitable to us and millions of other creatures. It is thus a matter of human imagination and dreaming as well as concrete technologies, tasks and policies.
When politicians enter the fray, the definitions can become self-serving:
Sustainable development ... is a way to fulfill the requirements of the present without compromising the future. When policies of sustainable development are followed, our economic and our environmental objectives are both achieved. In fact, America's entire approach to bilateral and multilateral assistance is based on the concept of sustainable development.
Others are ready with cautions:
The synthesis of environmental and economic imperatives popularly called "sustainable development" must become a reality, not just a slogan.
The definition that essentially started the whole discussion of sustainable development, from the 1987 Brundtland Commission report, remains one of the simplest: "Sustainable development is ... development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Of course, like the others, it is easy to say.
All concepts of sustainability share the element of longevity: everybody wants something to persist. Beyond that, they all conceal major ambiguities and difficulties. Even the most specific ones—"organizing an economic system so that it produces an enduring flow of output," for example—leave important questions unanswered. How is the organizing to be achieved? What qualifies as "enduring"—fifty years or five hundred? What kind of output—Mercedes and Lexus cars, or millet and lentils? Who gets it—the poor who need it but cannot afford it, or the rich and middle class who can pay? Who decides? Can an economy be sustainable if it is unfair, or is viewed as unfair? That is, must sustainability include a social justice dimension?
If sustainability is only about meeting our needs, those are minimal. What about our wants? Nearly 90 percent of economic activity in rich nations goes toward satisfying wants, and those seem insatiable. "Wants" have a way of becoming "needs": try living without a telephone in a culture where everyone else has one. How many of our wants can we expect to satisfy? How can we know what future generations will need or want? We cannot know—so we must somehow figure out what our obligations are. Should we leave them a specific collection of natural and "built" resources, a lot of money, or just our best wishes?
These difficult questions are not essentially technical, but questions of values. They cannot be answered by simply asking the experts. Sustainability will be achieved, if it all, not by engineers, agronomists, economists, and biotechnicians but by citizens.
To be sure, sustainability truly has an important technical dimension (which will be explored in some detail in chapter 2). A sustainable world of any reasonable definition will need a minimum supply of natural capital (resources). For several reasons, that threshold is difficult to locate, and it would be prudent to act as though we were already approaching it. Therefore, humanity should be taking certain steps of a technical nature to preserve its social choices in the decades ahead. For instance, with fossil fuels threatening to run out or become dangerous to use in the near future, it makes sense to work harder at developing renewable substitutes and more efficient machines.
But workable answers to questions like those posed above, which concern shared, public values, must be found in the political arena, and that is why the most important dimension of sustainability is political. Until the value questions are identified and addressed through a political process, answering the technical questions is only potentially useful. The technical questions have to do with how to move toward a goal, but the political questions have to do with what goal is to be sought and the roles of the various players.
Late in 1997, newspapers were full of stories about the summit conference on global warming held in Kyoto, Japan, in December. They repeated a familiar, three-part refrain about environmental problems:
The science is uncertain—fairly clear on some important points but not on others.
Despite that, many things, technological and otherwise, could be done to attack the problem.
An adequate response, however, would cost somebody a lot of money, at least in the short term (though it might save money in the long run).
This is a potent blend of facts. Human-caused change in the global climate is probably now unavoidable, but it could be minimized. Earth's climate seems to be warming because human economic activity (mainly combustion of coal, oil, and natural gas) is adding to the gases in the atmosphere that help trap the sun's heat and keep the global average temperature at about 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Hundreds of technical possibilities exist for reducing and eliminating dependence on fossil fuels and converting human energy systems to run on renewable resources. Moreover, there is no need to wait for the emergence of hypothetical technologies down the road; given the political will, we could make major progress with existing or rapidly developing technology in only a few years.
For many people, the evidence of global warming and the availability of compact fluorescent light bulbs and high-mileage automobiles add up to a compelling argument for urgent action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. But the high short-term costs create an opposing constituency, which claims that taking action will cause too much economic pain by retarding growth and trade. (This argument was prominent at the Kyoto conference, which coincidentally opened while Asia was reeling from an economic crisis involving currency devaluations, stock market collapses, and the shocking bankruptcies of several large corporations.) The uncertainty of the science, too, makes it easy to sow doubt. If Earth is warming, skeptics argue, it might be only the upswing phase of a normal climate fluctuation. If it is warming artificially, how can we know for certain that fossil fuels and deforestation are the culprits, since the pattern of increases in concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide does not track with the apparent warming seen so far? Even if Earth continues to heat up, nobody can say for sure how much; maybe only a degree or two. A little warming wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, because growing seasons would lengthen in many areas, and some crops would do better with higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the air. Besides, the skeptics conclude, environmentalists are always warning of global eco-disaster.
And so on. Expand this scenario to include all the other environmental concerns facing the world, and the stage is set for broad and multifaceted conflict over sustainability.
Sustainability thus brings people and governments face-to-face with the rawest political condition: we must decide to do something, or decide not to decide, yet we differ about courses of action and even about the facts, and we do not have a universally accepted ultimate authority, like science or religion, from which to seek the answers. How to proceed?
There is only one response to this question, and that is politics. Because the conflict is about values, sustainability must be socially and politically defined. Sustainability is provisional; it is subject to multiple conceptions and continuous revision, the very stuff of politics.
Like most political issues, sustainability is also a Trojan horse: in this case, for issues of economic, environmental, and social justice and equity. What sustainability is really about is the scope, quality, richness, and benignity of human culture, the biosphere and the economic life we make from them, and the distribution of those benefits, both now and over time. "Saving the planet" really means preserving and fairly allocating the ability of present and future generations to fashion societies that make life worth living. That is difficult enough in good times and is likely to become even more difficult if the environment continues to deteriorate (see Robert Kaplan's dismal scenario, discussed in chapter 3, for one plausible future). Even the structure of our societies is not assured, including those of the resource- and culture-rich nations in the developed world. Just as most species have flourished for a while and then disappeared from Earth, so have most complex societies, including the Western Chou empire of ancient China, the Harappans of India, several Mesopotamian empires, Old Egypt, the Hittites, the Minoans, the Mycenaeans, the Western Roman empire, the Lowland Classic Mayan empire, the Chacoans of the southwestern United States, and many others. The irony of Shelley's famous poem "Ozymandias"—"Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"—still applies. As has often happened in the past, environmental ignorance and mismanagement could force a great simplification in human societies.
Excerpted from The Local Politics of Global Sustainability by Thomas Prugh, Robert Costanza, Herman E. Daly. Copyright © 2000 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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