Political and business leaders, non-government and civil society organisations, journalists and activists, scientists, academics and indigenous tribes met last month at Rio+20 a.k.a., the United Nations Conference on Environment Development.
It came twenty years after that first meeting at Rio De Janeiro, Brazil which made ‘Sustainable Development’ a rallying cry extolled by everyone from hippies to US presidents. As it turns out, the latter never showed up, nor did Britain’s David Cameron nor Germany’s Angela Merkel nor our own Aquino, in stark contrast to the strong presence of all four who came before them in 1992. More than a hundred other heads of state did.
On the crumbling pyramid of equity, democracy and ecological protection now stands the twin pillars of rising inequality and a ravaged ecosystem. So they declared at Rio+20. And so we look on in dismay at its aftermath.
Because in a conference that took three days – the other Rio took two weeks – what emerged was a series of much-watered down pledges and promises that at best, paid lip service to promises made in the old Rio and at worst, threatens to set our sails toward business as usual. It stripped down to the point of irrelevance all mention of the need to secure the rights of all or eliminate poverty or share resources unconditionally at a time of growing lack. We are left with no firm commitment or concrete plan of action for a sustainable, equitable future. And, if the bureaucrats and their corporate comrades have their way, we are now well on our way toward commodifying (read: trading and turning into cold hard cash) what remains of our planet’s resources behind the façade of a ‘green economy’.
Rio+20 was not the breakthrough, Earth-shattering or -saving turning point we were hoping for. It was another framework, another bout of rhetoric to convince an increasingly cynical public of the potency of lackluster international agreements, another tribute to the triumph of the short sighted aims of a few vested interests over the longer term survival of the rest of humanity. It was, in short, a sham.
Still we dare to hope.
So until such time that our leaders get their acts together, or we muster the guts to save the world ourselves, here’s our own little tribute to the world we – really – want.
What follows is an essay submitted to the United Nations Environment Programme’s writing contest “The Future We Want”. This, written by yours truly, was rejected from the get-go by essay officials (for trumping the word count or perhaps – as pride would have it – for its radical overtones. But in all honesty, it probably just sucked) so I thought of publishing it here instead. I apologize in advance, if it makes your eyes water with dramatic intent… or sheer boredom.
Anthony Tang’s essay, however, did get in and nabbed a place in the top ten out of 156 essays, was read on air at Eastwood Mall, and streamed live to Rio. (see separate entry, “The future we want”, on this website).
We each have but one life, one choice. I speak for mine and generations to come. Four months after the first Rio conference twenty years ago, I was born. Two decades since, worn promises of a bright future for humanity feel, as they always do over time, like empty rhetoric. I see no change – at least, not in my neighbourhood – certainly not in my country.
Twenty years ago, the nations of the world faced the same chaos that surrounds us today. Landmark conferences to decide the fate of future generations apparently have a knack for coming at a bad time. But a call for change in the midst of converging crises in our economies, ecosystems and societies has made the search for solutions all the more daunting, and crucial.
While much remains uncertain, one thing is for sure: we must not, and cannot afford, to do business as usual. For dilemmas this great, we cannot settle for mere reform. A planet cries out for revolution.
For once let us cast aside our vested interests – their lobby money – our fear. There will be sacrifices, but I am convinced that the crises we face are but the birth pangs of a better future, if we so choose it.
To those who would dismiss this as no more than naïve idealism… well, this is a time for ideas: the more radical the better. This vision is neither a utopian dream nor an alarmist nightmare, but an appeal to common sense. In fact it is grounded in the most practical necessity imaginable, to decide the fate of the world. What could be more important than this?
And so we come to an old forked road, down which we can either save or destroy whatever remains of our Earth and our humanity. So let’s try a little experiment. Fast forward to the next century.
It is the year 2112.
A man walks toward a market, where he stops in search of a badly needed second-hand battery-charging bicycle. Spotting one, Mark offers the woman in a solar-powered jumpsuit behind a stall courses on twenty four foreign languages, then trades in more goods with a bit of money he shares with his local cooperative.
With the deal done, he gets on his not-so-new bike, cycling to pick up his daughter Joanne from a rather strange cluster in the middle of the city: a park, school, neighbourhood and hospital, all in one. Buildings, but not quite. What once was a sprawling slum is now a thriving community complex, and Joanne is having classes outdoors. Local communities have since transformed walled subdivisions and commercial high rise condos into eco-communes, providing sustainable living conditions for all residents, complete with urban gardens that bring fresh organic produce to a city where cycling paths have replaced skyways, small scale markets take the place of big box malls and yoga centres stand next to sustainable fish farms…
It’s time for lunch, but there are no restaurants in sight. Instead, Mark takes his daughter home to cook some real food, of the kind that nourished generations before McDonald’s. He promises her a trip to Davao then Norway on a carbon neutral, magnetic transnational train next week. These days, free vacations around the world trump mall-hopping any day.
This bustling eco-polis is but one among hundreds of thousands across continents. But in size, design and social policy, they are as varied as 21st century Manila is from London. Patterned after nature’s taste for diversity, none of them follow cookie-cutter plans, with each city suited to local conditions. These are then organised into larger bioregions, where everything from natural resources to cultural norms are accounted for and development for community needs takes place in harmony with the wider environment.
Some bioregions have sought to retain conventional forms of administration, managing resources through green market mechanisms. Others believe in strong governance through a combination of tougher regulations and incentives. Still others have taken a more radical approach, doing away with top-down authority altogether, through self-reliant communities built around consensus: direct democracy, workers’ cooperatives, social enterprises, community development projects, people’s juries and other non-hierarchical ways of organising.
What they have in common is a commitment to the principles of sustainable development, human rights and equity. All this has been made possible by grassroots action, bolstered by a global civil society and leaders who move beyond rhetoric and act on their promises.
The systems in place have allowed the Earth to recover from centuries of misuse; fostered a restoration of biodiversity and healthy ecosystems, stabilised population growth and brought global greenhouse gas emissions down to preindustrial levels, as we continue to adapt to climate change and seek to reverse warming trends.
With the restoration of global life support systems has come a radical restructuring of an economy dependent on growth, grounded in the understanding that any system in denial of its own limits is incompatible with the realities of a finite planet.
An unstable energy-intensive global system which once generated incredible amounts of waste, drove down wages, furthered poverty and inequality, and crushed national economies has been dropped in favour of a benign form of globalisation – a globalisation of ideas, of ingenuity, of solidarity with the human spirit.
We have embraced nature’s economy.
We recognise the prudence of long-term planning, slowing down, and living within our means. Far from limiting development, it has enhanced human potential as we have adapted to a different sort of growth altogether.
Sustainable industries now take full advantage of green innovation, and take full responsibility for all aspects of production, from sourcing to manufacturing to waste management in a sustainable cycle. All production processes are carbon neutral, again wasting nothing as all materials loop back into a closed system. This is only possible in an economy that has ceased to capitalise on capital, but on environmental wellbeing and the creativity of actual human beings who are seen as ends in themselves, rather than random, dispensable statistics plugged into an obscure formula for economic growth.
Long ago, we shunned attempts to commodify and privatise what little remained of the planet’s resources, and woke up to the lunacy of pinning price tags on everything from pollution to pebbles a child might skip over a parched river bed. These were patchwork solutions, at best, that failed to address the roots of the crises. Today, nobody pays because we have sought to do away with pollution entirely. True efficiency demands zero waste.
Environmental decline has also challenged and inspired generations of scientists to advance a kind of technology that is both revolutionary and evolutionary. Drawing insights from across disciplines, they have sought to improve technology as they always have, while limiting humanity’s impact on the natural world.
Trusting that nature does know best, the scientific method has taken on a holistic hue, with techniques adapted to the complexities of real life. Scientists have rediscovered man’s place within nature, respecting our place in the web of life, “hitched to everything else in the Universe”, says John Muir. This is in many ways both a return to traditional wisdom and a leap forward, gleaning what we can from the past as we keep constant pace with the needs of the present.
An educated public, for their part, take an active interest in any new discovery, grasping its implications to the planet, their lives, and those of future generations. Nor is it taken without question. New technologies are always subject to tight scrutiny – each new finding assessed and contested on its own merits, free from biased assumptions, vested interests, and the cheap drivel of talk radio.
The building blocks of sustainable development have long entered mainstream vocabulary: agroecology, hydroponics, fair trade, permaculture, seed swaps, low-impact design, and renewable energy. GDP, material prosperity and other indicators of ‘progress’ from an older world have taken a backseat in a society now well aware of its limits. While they remain in much-diminished form, we now understand that mindless consumption and cutthroat competition hardly works for the interests of all.
Working together for our daily needs, we bear direct witness to our dependence on one another, rather than on the random forces of a volatile global market. This has also meant an increased reliance on local economies and ecosystems. Yet while our society is built on self-reliance and resilience, this is not a throwback to ‘every man for himself’. On the contrary, as in any ecosystem, every individual plays a vital part of a greater whole. Each is allowed to flourish to her fullest potential.
A firm commitment to human rights ensures that everyone, from the president down to the garbage man, is guaranteed a decent standard of living. Whether through an equitable living wage for all, as some nations have designed it, or through social services coursed through communities and self-sustaining local initiatives – nobody falls through the cracks.
Today, individuals and governments gauge success by happiness and life satisfaction, not the size of their bank accounts. A fixation on wealth, consumption and materialism has given way to stronger communities, the pursuit of creativity, an enlightened spirituality. In an environment radically de-commercialised, people are rewarded for their compassion, not greed; esteemed not by things they possess but by the strength of their relationships.
While we all have learned to live with a little less materially, we consider this a small price to pay for the freedom to live a life of dignity.
Over the decades, we have witnessed a strengthening of social relationships, sharp declines in both mental and physical ill health as people engage in art, music and sport in ever growing numbers. Across the globe, people are reporting better quality of life.
And where everyone has enough, crime has come to a standstill. True wealth can never be stolen, nor bought, nor invested in a fictitious gamble where profits grow by the billion while someone else does the dirty work.
Gone is a reality where people lived in perpetual fear for their jobs or lived off the streets, in war zones, in drought zones, in dead zones, where millions starved and women wept and men used rape as a weapon of war, where children lugged AK-47s or rummaged through mountains of waste to afford the next pack of instant noodles to feed a family of ten.
In those days, the least among us faced the worst of life’s horrors. For centuries, the poor have been at the sharp end of discrimination, disease, hunger, war, conflict, crime, environmental degradation.
This was a time of gaping inequality, where the wealthiest fifth of the human population consumed well over half the planet’s resources, leaving half of one per cent for the poorest UNDP 1998, UNFPA 1999).
This was a world that splurged on its sports cars, its designer clothes, its nose jobs and McMansions. On its drugs, arms, cosmetics, and cigarettes. Or on its military: a fraction of whose budget would have been enough to ensure access to food, clean water, sanitation, health, education (UNDP 1998) – rights to every man, woman and child on Earth.
In a world where nearly a billion or more lived in poverty so extreme they had barely enough to eat, as many were obese or overweight (FAO 2010, WFP 2010).
Of that billion, in a society of high irony and low sympathy, legions of the rural poor who tilled the land and fished – following a way of life that spans millennia – were also its hungriest. Facing loss of land and livelihood from industrial development, unstable food prices, and the effects of a changing climate, their flight to urban areas was driven by the search for a better life. By 2030, three in five of them would live in cities, more than half of whom destined for slums (UN–HABITAT 2007). But life in the city was no different. If anything, it left them even more vulnerable, with dim prospects of ever breaking free from the cycle of poverty. There, a family of five would squeeze into a shack the size of a refrigerator before car-choked, crime-ridden streets, toxic sewage and urban sprawl.
Death was no big deal. A child dying in her mother’s arms, or in her mother’s womb – or with her mother herself – happened every day, at a rate of a woman dead every two minutes (UNFPA), and a child every five seconds (FAO).
Yet despite the grim statistics, even then we showed some signs of progress. Deforestation had slowed. Child and maternal mortality rates had halved; incidences of extreme poverty, hunger and communicable diseases which threatened human development were on their way down, albeit slowly, by 2010. The decades that stretched before it saw the rise of democracy, literacy, access to safe drinking water and major advances in medical and communications technology.
But any gains we’d made thus far would soon brush against the very real ecological limits many chose to deny. Despite our attempts to convince ourselves that all would be well, that nature would adapt as it always had, that the ‘experts’ would think of something to reverse the damage done and delay the inevitable: the future was far from secure. By 2050, our levels of consumption would require two planets to sustain (WWF 2006).
Nor was this having a fair impact on much of humanity.
More food and water shortages in the developing world loomed less than half a century away, driven by the one-two-four degree punch of climate change, rising sea levels, dried up rivers and lakes, pollution of ground water and major waterways, extreme and erratic weather including stronger storms, major flooding or on the flip-side, prolonged drought.
But climate change was but one check off a laundry list of ecological chaos, courtesy of us.
Forests were being cleared at a rate of 25 hectares– sixty two football fields – a minute, adding up to around 13 million hectares per year: an area roughly the size of Greece (UNEP 2007). The Philippines alone lost a third of its forest cover between the years 1990 and 2005. We’d disrupted ecosystems in our race to the top of the food chain, essentially replacing giant sequoias with skyscrapers, mountains with mines, forests with farms, marine life with plastic bags, oxygen with carbon dioxide.
Then the deserts came. Their sandy assault soon turned oases arid, with the Sahara expanding south up to 48 kilometres a year.
Widespread destruction of natural habitats left ecologists mourning over the loss of at least half of all plant and animal species by 2100 (WWF 2002). The sixth mass extinction event in the history of the planet loomed. Would the ascent of humanity leave no other species on Earth but Homo destructivus?
Then again, maybe we too were next in line to the woolly mammoth. With competition for scarce resources growing more desperate, conflict was inevitable, pitting nation, tribe and corporation against what little remained. This battle knew no bounds. Near constant exposure to environmental toxins meant synthetic chemicals had begun to appear in the blood stream of every person on the planet, and in human breast milk.
In our rabid quest for Life, we had shattered its very foundations.
Today nowhere, it seems, are the cries for social justice more compelling than in places where the rape of the Earth rubs shoulders with humanity’s most vulnerable and oppressed, who then find in the world’s refuse their very reason for being, at the tail end of a wasteful and greed-driven system that renders them powerless. Nowhere else is the call for compassion more pressing, or the gap between rich and poor more stark, or the desire to upend the existing social order sound that much more appealing – to bring the long-ignored masses away from the margins of society to its front and centre.
A serious reduction in global food supplies, safe drinking water, and other natural resources alongside a burgeoning global population will impact the poor the most, being the most vulnerable and least able to adapt. With the global population pegged to reach 9 billion by the year 2050 (UNPD 2004), natural resources will be strained to the limit. The gains of the 70s’ “Green Revolution” in food production – made possible in part by advances in irrigation, pesticide and fertilizer technologies – may come to a standstill, leaving much of the world hungry.
These looming threats to the security of the human race reveal the powerful links between the environment and human wellbeing.
A changing climate is already worst affecting those least responsible from the excesses of a few, buoyed by a system fuelled by greed and overconsumption, built on the blind pursuit of material wealth that cannot and will not stop until it has every square inch of the planet in its possession.
A system that stretches the Earth’s resources to their very limit across the globe and leaves many on the margins of economic growth that generates an unimaginable amount of waste, unfair trade and inequality. A system that funnels away more than half of these resources to a measly quarter of the world’s population (UNDP 1995, World Bank 2008).
A system which defines and shapes the contours of poverty, that determines who lives and who dies.
For at the crux of the ecological crisis is the short-sighted pursuit of short-term gain at the expense of future generations and the least within our own. These are interests driven by an obsession to satisfy the wants of a few at the expense of the needs of the majority.
Unsustainable patterns of resource extraction, production and consumption will take their toll in the years to come; as smallholder farmers and indigenous groups are stripped of their land to make way for commercial real estate, factories, and agribusiness; as unfair trade policies continue to push poorer nations to the brink; and as banks and investors continue to speculate on the world food supply and other goods essential for basic survival, spiking prices in a global market gone haywire.
All this, while the masses starve and a precious few line their pockets with the blood of generations to come.
These trends appear set to continue, on the back of political, economic, and social structures that direct wealth, privilege and opportunity away from the poor to the rich, between and within countries.
The apparent contradiction between entrenched business interests – the powers that be – and the need to restore a ravaged ecosystem is not at all surprising. The services nature provides in the form of land, water and fresh air are free and common to all. To capitalize on them is impossible. There is, after all, no ‘market’ for ecology (indeed, we demand too much and supply the Earth with next to nothing in return), no money in renewable energy (certainly not on the level of Big Oil), no mega-profits to be made from environmental conservation, or the protection of indigenous cultures, or long-term equitable, sustainable development that redistributes wealth in the interest of genuine Democracy. In short, what if real progress meant overhauling old notions of economics obsessed with growth, and rethinking the dynamics of wealth and power? What if it meant slowing down?
Social Watch said as much in its climate justice campaign, pushing for a global shift “away from profit-driven, growth oriented, high-carbon, elite-dominated exploitative systems and… a just transition to people-driven, equitable, and democratic post carbon sustainable development.”
But calls for slower growth would meet cries of blasphemy from legions of conservative economists, while the magnitude of sheer greed manifest among corporations in their pursuit of profit continue to shock us with reports of exploitation of both resources and labour, corruption, toxic waste dumping, land grabbing, and increasing sway over democratic institutions.
Of course, the impetus to bring about real, lasting change rests largely on the shoulders of the people we voted into power. Unfortunately, this is a nonstarter. In a world still trapped in old ways of thinking, there can be no justice.
Present debates have generated as much heat as global warming itself, with no light in sight. Countless climate summits and promises by political leaders have largely failed to address the root causes of the ecological crisis at this critical juncture between sustaining the human race through the years ahead…. or ecocide.
So the rest of us look on from the side lines with impatience akin to cynicism, as the echoes of heated debate in the halls of power have made no dent in the lives of those whose struggle to survive seem divorced from the interests of the very leaders they voted into power.
Nevertheless we cling to the hope of a future, restored.
The Future we want is a great transitionof the kind Paul Raskin and others have envisioned, veering away from the barbarity of a fortress world – the worst of human depravity – or total breakdown on a planet raped and shorn of life, a reality that looms ever closer if we do not change course now.
The Future we want promotes technology skewed toward clean and simple solutions that work for the benefit of all. Things like sustainable design, architecture, agriculture and fishing; improved recycling, reforestation and renewable energy based on what nature provides in abundance: sun, earth, air, water.
So forget fossil fuels and call it a revolution. A revolution that leaves no room for complex, convoluted techno-fixes that wreak havoc on ecosystems which, apart from emitting carbon and generating tonnes of waste, risk turning human beings into cogs in a machine.
Small is beautiful .Now we do not preach a return to an idyllic but backward past – or worse, business as usual – but a push toward genuine progress. This progress need not come at the cost of the planet. Science must be rooted in an understanding of ecology; a respect for balance and the interconnectedness of life.
But science alone cannot help us without our own change of heart.
The Future we want celebrates diversity. Diverse faiths, languages and governing systems coexist and thrive in a tapestry of culture as colourful as nature herself. On a more serious note, in a global society that must unite in the face of impending crises, there can be no one-size-fits-all ‘80s-style ‘solutions’, but solutions which address the needs of individuals, countries, and communities according to their unique circumstances.
The Future we want builds new structures of power that draw the best from left and right while transcending both; designs new systems of labour, production, and consumption that take into account the things that truly matter, that discourage runaway greed and mindless consumerism. It’s time for economic growth to grow up and face the facts. A new ‘capitalism with a conscience’ – if there can be such a thing – must be made to realise that quality of life is impossible to quantify and that a realistic assessment of Earth’s resources demands that limits be placed on growth. The interests of people and planet come before profit.
The Future we want does not reduce international relations to mere business transactions. We know enough to understand that business-as-usual cannot work. Set priorities straight by redistributing economic and political power through binding laws that actually do. Drop competition for cooperation and uphold fair trade between North and South. Restore faith in international diplomacy by dismantling existing institutions and structures that perpetuate poverty, inequality and environmental decline. End all debt. Create new programmes that promote social and economic justice, while sharing resources and technology to both mitigate and adapt to a changing climate, bearing in mind common but differentiated responsibilities (CBRD).
Think globally, act locally. Aid efforts should be oriented toward long-term goals and strategies that promote self-reliance and dignity within developing nations. Favour grassroots initiatives over top-down policies. The poor are not passive victims but active citizens of a global community.
The Future we want will involve dynamic and responsive governments that put people and planet on the pedestal of progressive politics, willing to adapt to change as they meet the needs of both. Leadership committed to human and environmental rights and founded on principles at the heart of Democracy: freedom, dignity, equality, solidarity, tolerance and respect for nature.
But the Future we want also clamours for solutions that move beyond the hands of traditional institutions – states and corporations – toward an increasingly vibrant Civil Society: a global coalition of charities, churches, non-profits and NGO’s independent of politics and profits, as well as grassroots initiatives that flourish in the hands of private individuals working toward real change. Those who still care for what happens next and the future of our great-great-grandkids need not wring their hands in despair. While international climate summits and national poverty relief measures continue to move at a snail’s pace, the political impasse has driven ordinary people to take matters into their own hands, uniting social justice with ecological sustainability.
What unites us is a faith in humanity and the sense that the quest for a better world involves everyone and must naturally emerge from the bottom-up.
Finally, the Future we want is a society which embraces – or rather, re-embraces -a whole new set of norms and values: altruism, compassion, community, sustainability, simplicity, tolerance, hope.
At a time when the old moral arguments have lost their sway in the name of profit and the orthodoxy of ‘practical’ economics, when money reigns over every facet of life, we must regain a shared sense that we are all in this together; one Earth family forging a future equipped with enough common sense borne out of the wisdom of the past as much as the painful realities of the present. Indeed, in recent decades we have begun to arrive at a more holistic understanding of our actual place in the world, beginning to see creation as not something to exploit at our disposal, but something to cherish.
At the rate we’re going, change is inevitable. The signs are clear and the science sound, requiring only the courage to commit and the will to act. The only question is whether our species is willing to change, adapt and thrive, or have change forced down our collective throat with devastating results, dragging the rest of the planet down with us.
Ultimately, ensuring a decent future for future generations and with the creatures with whom we share this planet hinges on a combination of all three: the government’s power to act, the private sector’s willingness to cooperate and above all, our desire to put pressure on both, to organise ourselves and help each other out.
It means, above all, a fight for Life.