Insight from Civil Society Engaging
with Science and Technology
Are humans going to be
self destructive in the 21st century?
1. The ecological footprint of human society
started exceeding the earth’s bio capacity in the mid-1970s.
Today, close to 1.4 times earth’s bio capacity is required to sustain
the current human activity levels. Humans are eating into natural
capital in a manner that makes it unsustainable.
2. Given the current rate of spoilage of the
global commons, particularly air, some say that we have already crossed
the point of no-return, while others believe that we have a narrow
25-50 years window to fix the problem.
3. Saving the
earth and humanity can no longer be done merely by technical, economic
or legal fixes.
production/use is central to environment and development issues.
Peak oil is expected to occur within the next 5-10 years, with peak gas
to follow within a few decades. No viable energy source, green or
otherwise, is available to replace oil and gas. Development must
now be re-defined as:
Capping energy production at current levels
immediately, and rolling it back to 1975 (or thereabouts) levels within
the next few decades;
How to ensure that all people have equal: 1)
access to energy and other natural resources, 2) consumption levels of
energy and other natural resources, 3) participation levels in decision
making over all issues related to energy and natural resources, in such
a manner that the eco footprint for earth as a whole, and its various
geographic regions, do not exceed their bio capacities.
If the above is
accepted, GDP/GNP can no longer be used as a development milestone and
a suitable development milestone will have to be fashioned out and
accepted, eg, “Gross national happiness” (Bhutan).
5. The above can only be achieved if global
thinking shifts from “gain maximization for a few people” to “risk
minimization for all of life”. Implicit within the latter is the
acceptance of three equities: a) between people, b) between
generations, c) between species.
6. Point 5c) above challenges the
definition of “economic value” as understood by classical and Marxist
economics, both of which are anthropocentric. Value, then may
have to be based primarily on a measurable index of environmental
withdrawals, pollutants recycled to earth, interference with natural
cycles (carbon and hydrological cycles, ..) and biota, besides the
amount of human labour that goes into a product or service.
(More on this later)
If human society
survives the impending environmental crisis, a transition from equity
between species to equality between species is desirable, if not
inevitable. Value as an economic category, as we understand it
today, will then disappear.
political and sociological institutions today are also based on an
anthropocentric view. These structures will change if a
biocentric view becomes more acceptable.
8. Other questions come into play. For
instance, humans are the only creatures that have succeeded in
colonizing new environments because of their ability to create and use
knowledge, which has helped them destroy nature and brought them to the
current crisis. No doubt, knowledge has done some good for
humans, but on balance it seems to have done more harm. What then
is the point in developing more knowledge? More importantly,
greed seems to drive humans to consume wantonly. Yet, humans like
all other animals have a self-preservative instinct. Which is the
greater human motivator—greed or need for collective self-preservation?
9. Whatever be the goal we start moving
towards, which will unfold only in time, a practical road map for the
next 50 years is required.
10. The Indian and Chinese states feel that they
have a real chance to catch up with the north nations. To do that
they are now willing to sacrifice their secondary risk minimization
programmes (environmental protection, occupational health & safety,
etc). (China and India emit 70 and 24 kg of SO2/US$
1,000 value added, respectively as compared to 4 by the US.
However, China, India and the US have a per capita SO2 emission
of 23, 6 and 84 kgs/annum, respectively).
This implies that interventions to minimize secondary risks through
state mechanisms and organs (regulatory authorities, courts) will
largely fail, as will interventions through other organs (press).
Consequently the cost of externalities will be dumped onto people and
common property resources (air, water, common lands, parks) will
increasingly become inaccessible to people.
The only major force
that can buck this trend is people, but for them to do this requires
great changes to be put into place.
Per capita consumption
For a sustainable world — 0.67 TOe