Thursday, April 5, 2007

“Sustainable development – why worry?”

“Sustainable development – why worry?”
John Westin, April 3rd

Empires rise and fall. When they fall, they plunge. Diamondi [i] outlines five causes commonly involved in the falls of long-lived historical civilizations. Notably featured are human-caused environmental changes and ignorance on part of the leaders, and – dare we say it – “history repeats itself?” If we compare the local and reasonably temporary human impacts on the environment in the past to that of today, we realize that the threats we face today could be qualitatively different in that they are global and more permanent in nature. Combined with an overarching lack of evidence and understanding of causal relations the effects become potentially disastrous – with no warning system in place we cannot ensue timely restriction of dangerous development. It is in human nature to develop, and development will continue. Therefore we simply cannot afford to disregard sustainable development as not being a very “Big Problem” until we know better. Today the stakes are simply too high.

So history repeats itself. Then why worry? It has worked so far. Rome, the Polynesians and the Mayans all came and went but you and I are still breathing and eating well. However, there are two significant differences in the dynamics of change between then and now – namely geographic scale and the nature of environmental impact. What was previously local and mostly physical environmental influence is today global and highly chemical. While Mayan deforestation certainly caused environmental havoc in the central Americas, the effects were reasonably limited geographically (arguably did not yield significant climate change in, say, Asia), and temporary (after human presence declined the forests recovered[ii,iii]). Today we have indications that our physical and chemical impact on the environment not only has global reach (no one lives on Antarctica yet drastic changes have been observed there[iv]), but also causes a delayed, nonlinear and highly unpredictable chain of effects. The Mayans scarred the surface of the earth 1000+ years ago, but today we might be going deeper than that. Scars are ugly, but they heal. Hemorrhagia may impair or even kill. In conclusion, it should not be too controversial to say that if today's environmental effects are qualitatively different from yesterday's, we might very well need to pay heed.

Conditionals, conditionals, conditionals… The environmental literature is ridden with “might”s, “may”s, “should”s and “could”s. This is most likely a product of the “Sustainable Development” issue's inherent complexity and non-deterministic causal relations. Coupled with a lack of standardized theory and terminology, meaning is easily obscured. Huge numbers, hard to contextualize, are tossed around freely: “20.4 million barrels… 960 million tons… 1.1 billion vehicles...”[v] – not ever having dealt with such quantities before the qualitative significance is easily lost. Meanwhile daily “expert reports” warn and/or ensure us that we will die and/or have nothing to worry about tomorrow. Their disparity makes no sense at first, until you take the economics and international policies into account. Experts require funding and have nationalistic agendas. So what should one think?

In the end such convoluted affairs come down to personal believes, be they shaped by well informed expert opinion or sensationalist periodicals. One simply cannot find objective “truth” with such disparity of evidence and support. “On a scale of 1 to 10, how critical would you rate today's environmental situation?” I was asked a week ago. I answered 10. Why? Not because I genuinely believe catastrophe is looming around the corner, but because the issue at hand is in a sense pan-ultimate. “If you lived under a boulder, how critical would you rate the stability of that boulder?” Your local expert might tell you not to worry; your neighbor, that it is about to fall. The most rational way to relate to such a situation is proper precaution, not a lack thereof. Our global household is possibly in danger, and until we know whether it is or not we simply cannot allow ourselves to relax the issue. Or else the boulder could drop.

i Diamond, Jared. The Ends of the World as We Know Them. NYT, Jan 1, 2005.

ii Shaw, Justine. Climate Change and Deforestation. Ancient Mesoamerica, 14 (2003), 157–167

iii Nasa. Mayan Mysteris. Viewed on April 2nd. URL

iv Kennedy, Andrew. Antarctic Terrestrial Ecosystem Response to Global Environmental Change. URL

v Brown, Lester R. PLAN B 2.0. W.W. Norton, 2006, pp. 9-11

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