Monday, May 11, 2015

Achieving sustainable development must go beyond setting goals.

For more than 40 years we have talked about the sustainability of our life choices as a species. From 1972 in Stockholm to 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, we are yet to reach a consensus on concrete action to put our civilization on an even keel with our planet

In 1972 Donella Meadows and colleagues in their seminal book, The Limits to Growth, pleaded for profound technological, cultural and institutional change to avoid the increase of our ecological footprint beyond the Earth’s carrying capacity. Evidently we have not paid attention. Collectively, we have been long on rhetoric and short on concrete action to steer our planet and our civilization on a sustainable path.

The world’s population has grown from 3.84 billion in 1972 to 7.3 billion today. Globally, we lose about 23 hectares of arable land per minute. In 30 years we have seen the unraveling of the Green Revolution as soils turned saline, ground water has been depleted. As we opened up land for cities, farms and pastures we destroyed habitats and exterminated biodiversity and vital biodiversity collapsed. As we powered our homes and factories and moved goods and services we cast a cocktail of foul gases into the atmosphere our planet warmed and the oceans acidified.

In 1987 we formalized the definition of sustainable development, awakening the conscious of politicians and development aficionados to an evolving global crisis. But the world barely stirred in its slumber. The notion of sustainability became instantly divisive in an ideological sense; largely perceived as an assault on the broad and noble goals of accumulation for socio-economic development.

In 2002, Nobel Laureate and Chemist described our age as the Anthropocene; the age in which mankind posses a capacity to alter Earth processes on a scale hitherto assumed possible by earthquakes, volcanoes and glaciers. In 2009, a group of scientist warned that were pushing hard beyond the safe operating zone on vital life support systems. Johan Rockstrom and his colleagues added the notion of planetary boundaries to the global discourse on sustainability. For over decade before 2009, a group of interdisciplinary scholars under the auspices of the Resilience Alliance had argued for inclusion of transformation and renewal when talking about sustainable development.

The rise of China, economically, seems to have complicated the path to a global agreement on curbing green house gas emissions. China believes that it too, just like Europe, Japan and North America must burn dirty hydrocarbon fuels on its way to economic and social advancement. The US believes that cutting back emissions and leading the scientific and technological innovation to transition to green economy will somehow diminish its global power status. How ludicrous!

On global warming Africa is the victim here. Africa believes it is owed technology and loads of cash to adapt to climate change. What about Africa’s own budgetary resources? We know that grand theft and corruption has created thousands of odiously wealthy politicians and public servants. Do African universities have any role in driving innovations to cope and adapt to the local effects of climate change?

Moreover, Africa is to too poor to preserve its forests, wetlands, lakes and farmlands. The excuse usually is that we must destroy these resources just to eke out a living. We would like to believe that there is some kind of Environmental Kuznets Curve; that we must destroy and profit from nature, and create the wealth to then preserve nature. We are saying to nature there is no such thing as free lunch. This is Grade B tripe!


In the foreword to Jeffery Sachs’ new book, The Age of Sustainable Development, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon notes that poverty plagues mankind, climate change threatens livelihoods, conflicts are raging and inequality is widening. The Age of Sustainable Development is beckoning. Do we have the courage to hearken to the call?

We must do more that converge in New York in September 2015 to register commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We committed to the MDGs and 15 years down the road there is so little to show, except the need to agree on another set of global development goals. Can this time be different?


Sustainability must be more than goals nations commit to. It must reflect individual and collective understanding and respect for the inextricable connections between humans and nature and about equitable and inclusive socio-economic prosperity for all of mankind.  

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