TWN Briefing Paper No.2 for WSSD Prep Com II
CRITICAL ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES OF THE 21ST CENTURY
The twentieth century was marked by both the recognition and creation of a host of environmental problems. Our twenty-first century bears the burden of resolving these problems and preventing the emergence of more. Optimistically, it would appear that many solutions for prevention and resolution of environmental issues could lie in the same direction.
A great many environmental problems stem from the organization, mode of production and consumption impacts of industrial societies. Broadly speaking, the techno-scientific basis of these societies produces two streams of impacts - in the magnitude of its use and consumption of resources, and the production of vast quantities of pollutants and dangerous technologies - both of which have harmed and debilitated the non-human environment and humans themselves.
Although many less impactful alternatives exist within and outside industrial societies, the hegemonic paradigm is deeply entrenched within the economic fabric of almost all societies, and especially in the rationale and operation of transnational corporations. A "developed" country is defined by the depth of its commitment to and level of achievement within this ideology. "Developing" countries by definition would be condemned to look only one way: at the destructive path already tread. However, in practice most are often hampered in pursuing even this suicidal course by the lopsidedness of the international economic order. Unable to "succeed" in development they instead furnish the conditions of the developed countries' success: cheap access to resources (both in nature and labour), an abundance of indigenous knowledge and resource diversity, and terms of trade favourable to developed countries.
The environmental and human consequences of this are enormous, as their effect is felt in all countries. For example, oil extracted in Nigeria produces health and environmental impacts where it is consumed in many nations (as fuel and petrochemical products such as agrochemicals), where it is sourced (the deltas and oceans) and globally through contributions to global warming.
The environmental problem is an economic and therefore political problem of the highest order. Neither the developed nor developing countries are irrevocably condemned to continue this way. The challenge is to break with the destructive hegemonic technological paradigm whilst orchestrating a just transition within the economic and political spheres.
* Transnational Corporations - There has been a profound failure to integrate environment and development since UNCED. The transnational corporate lobby, contrary to its efforts to present itself as the solution, has proved to be a significant, and parasitic, source of many environmental and economic problems. Eco-efficiency and the quite hollow mantra of "continuous improvement" have done pitifully little to curb the global damage inflicted by the corporate sector since they tweak a fundamentally unsustainable paradigm. The promotion of unsound technologies (such as genetic engineering) and high-impact industries (such as the
* extractive ones) have largely been due to transnational corporations. This transnational business lobby has been quite desperate to evade regulation as they claim it will not allow them to operate as they have been used to. This alone would suggest that regulation is indeed necessary in order to prevent further environmental and human costs.
* Toxic Legacies - We will not only have to shift direction but also deal with industrial legacies as they emerge. The accumulation of pollutants may suddenly surface as in the case of acid rain accumulation in aquifers and soils, heavy metal release from old mines, and sudden climate change from greenhouse gases.
* Technology Assessment, Early Warning and Monitoring - We are lucky that the global scientific community does not simply produce the conditions for our environmental destruction but has also performed a crucial service in identifying problems that might have otherwise escaped notice: ozone depletion, global warming, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and the spread and mutating virulence of diseases. Scientists will have to turn their attention to technology assessment especially with regards to biotechnologies such as genetic engineering and the creation of novel life-forms. With biodiversity and ecosystems under threat from destruction and pollution of their gene pool (by novel life-forms), biosafety and an effective Biosafety Protocol should be imperatives. Biological weapons, and their intersection with biotechnology, should also form an important aspect of biosafety.
* Human and Ecosystem Vulnerability - As a consequence of colonialism, maldevelopment, loss of biodiversity, ecosystem loss, declining food security, displacement and strife due to the proliferation of small conflicts, state decapitation and declining commodity prices during the twentieth century many people and ecosystems, especially in the South, are highly vulnerable to unstable global systems such as adverse climate events including natural disasters and phenomena such as El Nino intensified by global warming, instabilities in the international markets, and regional and sub-regional conflagrations. One may also consider species invasions spurred by globalisation, water crises, the degradation of coastal areas and decline of marine life, the plight of small island states, land degradation and reduced soil fertility and the pressure of urbanisation. Policy, forward planning and a strengthened grassroots would reduce vulnerability.
* Indigenous Rights - The rights of communities and indigenous peoples' to natural resources (land, water and biodiversity) and their knowledge must be defended.
* Alternatives - Breaking with the old, unsustainable paradigm means promoting genuine alternative institutions, practices and technologies, some of which may be quite old. Contrary to the implication of the Report of the Secretary-General Implementing Agenda 21, the South is not plagued by Malthusian overpopulation, technological backwardness and inadequate knowledge. If this were true, transnational corporations and opportunistic academics would not be scrabbling to patent and profit from indigenous knowledge. Practices of economic and environmental domination must cease. Sustainable practices in agriculture, land management, settlement, energy and economics must be encouraged to flower in their place.