The Ecological Challenge in a Global Context
Ecology is a word that has only recently crept into everyday speech. In a few words, it means the relationship between living organisms and their environment. Is there now a problem for one animal species - ourselves - and the environment? The answer must be 'Yes'.
Let me refer you to a Declaration made by over a thousand scientists from the four great global research programmes at Amsterdam in July 2001. There it stated squarely that
- Human-driven changes to the Earth's land surface, oceans, coasts, atmosphere and biodiversity are "equal to some of the great forces of nature in their extent and impact …Global change is real and happening now"
- "Human activities have the potential to switch the Earth's System to alternative modes of operation that may prove irreversible and less hospitable to humans and other life… the Earth's System has moved well outside the range of the natural variability exhibited over the last half million years at least… the Earth is currently operating in a no-analogue state"
- "The accelerating human transformation of the Earth's environment is not sustainable. Therefore the business-as-usual way of dealing with the Earth's System is not an option. It has to be replaced - as soon as possible - by deliberate strategies of management that sustain the Earth's environment while meeting social and economic development objectives".
So the problem is both real and pressing. It is also on a vast geological scale. No wonder that the Nobel prize winner Paul Crutzen with his colleague Eugene Stoermer should have named the current epoch the Anthropocene in succession to the Holocene. The Anthropocene began with the industrial revolution a quarter of a millennium ago.
Since then living conditions for most people, measured in terms of material wealth and longevity, have greatly improved. But all change has been at a price. While we have been increasing output of goods of all kinds, we have been running down, despoiling and often wasting the resources from which they are derived. If our animal species among millions of others is to survive and prosper, we need to use our unique capacity to think.
The Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, has recently published a book in which he rates the chances of our civilization surviving to the end of the century at no more than 50 percent. The main threats he sees arise from misuse of science through inadvertence, folly and even criminality. Examples of such misuses are the possible results of genetic manipulation, nano-technology and nuclear experiments.
For the moment there are five main things for us to think about:
- human population increase;
- degradation of land and accumulation of wastes;
- water pollution and supply;
- climate change;
- and destruction of biodiversity.
Of these factors population issues are often ignored as somehow too embarrassing or mixed up with religion and economic development; most people are broadly aware of land and waste problems, although far from accepting the remedies necessary; water issues have had a lot of publicity, and already affect most people on this planet; climate change is also broadly understood, apart from by those who do not want to hear about it; but damage to the diversity of life of which our species is a small but immodest part has somehow escaped most public attention. All these issues are interlinked, and all concern the future of humanity.
I would commend to you a recent series of articles in Science magazine, dealing with our planetary prospects. The series begins with the effects of human population increase and of damage to biodiversity with the global ecosystem. Taking the case of biodiversity, Martin Jenkins wrote:
"With the harvest of marine resources now at or past its peak, terrestrial ecosystems will bear most of the burden of having to feed, clothe and house the expanded human population."
Already nearly half of the Earth's land surface has been transformed by direct human action, and the indirect effects are beyond calculation.
The result with big regional variations is almost bound to be conversion of more land to crops, with increasing loss of forests and natural habitats, and degradation of land, particularly in tropical countries. This means continued, even accelerating the loss of natural ecosystems, and their replacement by less diverse, often intensively managed systems of non-native species. At some point, Jenkins wrote, some threshold may be crossed, with unforeseeable but probably catastrophic consequences for humans. But somehow he thought it more likely that these consequences would be brought about by other factors, such as abrupt climate shifts, albeit ones in which ecosystem changes might have played a part.
Faced with this combination of factors, you might have expected vigorous public debate, some measure of concern, and even rethinking of policy. Yet this is not the case. Are some of us blind, deaf, and dumb?
It has been suggested that humans have three biological characteristics which dominate their behaviour. First is their propensity to use and exploit whatever resources they can find as if there were no limit. Other species may share this propensity, but none has anything like ever increasing human technical skills in doing so. In short humans are too clever by half. On this reckoning we are a malignant maladaptation in the corpus of living organisms, and behave and reproduce like a virus out of control.
Our second characteristic is our neotenous or child-like curiosity and love of play which tends to transform every activity, whether politics, war or science, into games which induce self-absorbed behaviour, sometimes beneficial in the short term, but often out of touch with the long term realities of the environment. I add that we gain thereby a high conceit of ourselves as if the path of evolution which led to us was the only path. As Andrew Knoll has written recently;
"Travel another path and life's history is a gripping saga of cynobacterial survival, a cautionary tale of trilobitic fall, or the inspirational story of yeasts finding sustenance in rotting fruit. Each of the 10 million or so species alive today is equally the produce of Earth's 4 billion year evolutionary history - myriad forms separated by evolutionary divergence but united in ecological co-dependence."
Our third characteristic is our intellectual predilection for putting subjects into compartments, thereby missing their connections and inter-relationships. As a result we fail to see, let alone comprehend the big picture. Yet it is only through seeing the big picture that we can hope to draw sensible conclusions, and take decisions consistent with the circumstances in which we find ourselves together with the other millions of organisms affected by human activities.
Then there is the way in which we treat each other There is a widening gap between the world's rich and the world's poor, and disproportionate consumption of the Earth's resources. At present about 20 percent of the world's people consume between 70 percent and 80 percent of its resources. That 20 percent enjoy about 45 percent of its meat and fish, and use 68 percent of electricity (most generated from fossil fuels), 84 percent of paper, and 87 percent of cars. The dividing line between rich and poor is not only between countries but also within them. There are the globalized rich and the localized poor, and according to the latest report from the United Nations Development Programme the gap between them is ever widening.
So what on Earth - a familiar phrase - are we going to do next? The first serious cries of alarm came in the 1960s. In 1972 the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment took place: it was followed by the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme. Over the next 20 years the size and scope of the problems, particularly over climate change, became clearer. Preparations for the 1992 Conference on Environment and Development began in my office in New York when I was British Ambassador to the United Nations.
The ensuing Rio Conference produced a variety of important results, ranging from the Framework Convention on Climate Change to Agenda 21 (or an agenda for this century). By contrast the Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 was a disappointment. It produced a political Declaration which said very little new: indeed it was a triumph of repackaging. There was a 54-page Plan of Implementation. Only time will tell its value. But it has already been described as, "many trees, but little wood". Then came an assembly of so-called partnerships. Finally many targets were set but none that was legally binding.
In general the participants generally left wiser, sadder and - let us hope - better aware of their many shortcomings. One issue was singled out of particular importance: water. But the subsequent Third World Water Forum in Kyoto achieved little and was virtually unheard in the build up to the Iraq war. Most participants went home from Johannesburg as if it had never happened.
There are wide differences in national attitudes. They range from determination to do something about at least some of the issues (a succession of British Prime Ministers has pursued climate change with results for the future of British energy policy), to crass refusal even to acknowledge that the problems exist.
Here the position of the present US Administration, apparently dominated by certain vested interests, is particularly regrettable: on climate change the United States is the villain of the piece. With only 4 percent of the world's population, it produces almost a quarter of the world's carbon dioxide emissions. It also gives a bad example to the rest of the world. Even China, on a shrewd calculation of its own climatic vulnerability and national interest, is doing much better, with reductions in emissions in absolute terms over the last 10 years.
Even those who accept the premise of the need for change have very different priorities. For what it is worth, my own priorities are as follows:
- We need to take better care of the Earth and its living systems. Hence the importance of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment due to report next year, and, in the next ten years, the Tree of Life project to demonstrate relationships between organisms by descent. At present our understanding of how nature works is astonishingly poor. In particular we need to assess more accurately the human capacity for harm to ourselves as well as to other organisms.
- Any assessment of our impact on the biosphere must include a rethink of most current economic theory. It simply does not take proper account of sustainable development. We should ask ourselves what value we place on the environment. I do not think that anyone would disagree with the statement by a well-known economist that "the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment". In short without a healthy environment, there can be no healthy economy.
But there is a real difficulty on how to assess health. The ideologues of free trade like to suggest the price mechanism. But as another distinguished economist once remarked: "Markets are superb at setting prices, but incapable of recognizing costs". Prices are indicators. A good example is fresh water. A pricing system should include not only the traditional costs, but also those involved in replacing the resource, and those of the damage that use of the resource may do. Value has to be seen in much wider terms than money. In short current market economics will not do except in a framework of public interest. As an ideology, consumerism cannot - and does not - work.
How to measure wealth, well-being and economic success is currently the subject of much debate. Use of Gross National Product or Gross Domestic Product is of only limited value and can be highly misleading. The same goes for most indices of economic growth. Various substitutes have been suggested, among them the Human Development Index. But this too seems to be flawed. It does not take proper account of human as well as natural capital. The result is that some countries, particularly poor ones, look as if they are becoming richer when in terms of human experience they are becoming poorer. In my view,
- We need to redefine development and recognize the very different needs - and strengths - of different countries. For many global prescriptions lack reality. It is local experience and potentiality which have most importance.
- We need to apply the principles of common but differentiated responsibility, accepting that industrial countries have much bigger responsibilities for what has gone wrong, as well as what has gone right, and should give the example in their domestic policies;
- We need to work out partnerships at all levels: governments, business, universities, local communities and the rest, and establish new guidelines and codes of conduct;
- We need to focus on the needs and attitudes of coming generations: in short give new direction to the educational process. This process in industrial, as in any other kind of country, is rightly called capacity building.
All involve the ability to accept accelerating change, and learn to think, and ultimately to behave differently. How will this all affect business? Some may feel they are the target for irksome environmental legislation, which governments unleash on unresponsive electorates. But some businesses are ahead of government, and the need for new thinking is fairly well recognized.
Modern economies are going through a period of radical change: away from energy intensive and heavy manufacturing activities towards service industries, scientific enterprise, and information technology. There is much wider awareness of environmental issues in general. Recent years have seen a trend towards greater corporate responsibility, realized through self-regulation, corporate environmental policies, voluntary codes of practice, and the use of environmental audits and open reporting. An international survey found that the number of companies with environmental or health, safety and environment reports increased to 24 percent in 1999.
Investors are also catching on. According to a Friends, Ivory Sime survey in August 2000, 75 percent of us want our pension companies to take social and environment concerns into account. As a consultant to environmental and ethical trusts, I have seen a remarkable change in corporate as well as shareholder attitudes in this respect, all with good effects on profitability and share value. Companies include sections on the environment in their annual reports, and publish environmental impacts assessments.
The biggest change on the horizon for businesses in Europe is the European Union's Emission's Trading Scheme which will come into effect on 1 January 2005. It is much wider than the existing British scheme and the installations covered will include the electricity generation industry; oil refineries; the iron and steel industry; the minerals industry and paper, pulp and board manufacturing. Together the installations covered by the scheme should account for about 50 percent of all British carbon dioxide emissions.
Although technological fixes are notoriously liable to create as many problems as they solve, technology still has a major part to play. Technology has helped pioneer cleaner production systems under the rubric of industrial ecology, which aims to reduce or eliminate toxic pollution and waste generation. Cleaner production has proved popular in industry, at least partly because the costs of this approach tend to diminish over time, while the costs of controlling pollution and cleaning up after the event become increasingly high as new regulations are introduced.
Despite progress there is often a gap between the environmental concern and performance of leading multinationals and large companies, and that of small and medium-sized enterprises. The largest companies have both the resources to invest in environmental action and the visibility to motivate such action. But small companies operate with very limited resources on short time horizons, and are often struggling even with things as they are.
But the trend is inexorable, whether at international level, for example through the International Chambers of Commerce or the World Bank; or at national level, for example in Britain through the Advisory Committee on Business and the Environment (ACBE) and the Confederation of British Industry.
Some businesses may not respond. In my view they will find it more difficult to:
- sell their products: green consumerism is ever more powerful. As consumers become more aware of which businesses are failing environmental targets, sales might suffer. The public's response to Brent Spar and the Exxon Valdez catastrophe can offer telling lessons.
- dispose of waste: there is a shortage of good landfill sites, incineration is ever more expensive, and in Britain a landfill tax is driving up the costs. We are far behind such countries as Germany in reducing production of waste (for example through packaging) and in disposing of it afterwards.
- obtain insurance: liability legislation will mean insurance companies will require environmental audits before providing cover;
- attract finance: investors are becoming wary of bad environmental practice because it can increase costs and risks; regulations specifically covering disclosure of environmental matters as part of stock exchange filings are on the increase.
- recruit and retain able staff: employees want to work for clean, safe, caring and innovative companies, and their creativity and enthusiasm can be harnessed for the benefit of the company if they are kept informed and involved in improving environmental performance.
- keep within the law: the trend in legislation is to make business far more accountable for its impact on the environment; the pressure on company directors is particularly acute in the United States, given that law can render them personally liable for environmental wrong doing.
At present the United States and other industrial countries are leaders in science and technology. But increasingly they are becoming dependent on the supply of relatively low-cost skilled people from abroad, in particular India and China. In the long run this may be to the general advantage, but I suspect that in the future the original industrial countries will be obliged to do more to rely on their own talent. The competition will become keen. To stay in front, the industrial countries need to make sure that their educational processes supply more of their own needs. In particular business needs informed company officers; this course should be a flagship for all schools of management. How rare it is for business schools to give corporate responsibility such a high profile.
Business is at the core of our society. We could discuss for many hours whether business merely supplies the consumer demands or whether marketing persuades us to buy goods that in many cases we simply do not need. The answer probably lies somewhere in between. Either way the public can influence business in the type and quality of products it demands. New technologies also need informed consumers. Demand for technology must mean more than new and better gadgets. Fridges, washing machines and cars are among many products being labelled to enable us to make better environmental choices.
If governments, business or any other sector is to succeed in reducing its impact on the environment there must be a wider recognition in society for the scale of the changes that are needed. Every individual must feel that he and she can do something and take increased responsibility for what they do.
In truth we simply have to change our ways. That means the world as a whole. I do not like to think what future generations will think of us as they pay for the consequences of our actions or inactions. We need political leadership from above, and pressure from citizens of all kinds from below. Above all we do not want to rely on catastrophes to force us into change. The longer we leave such change the more painful it is likely to be.
I have already suggested my own priorities in trying to meet this challenge and I expect that everyone here has their own. Let me conclude with a message. Not long ago I was asked to work out a family motto. After a lot of thought, I went for the title of that song from Porgy and Bess, "It Ain't Necessarily So", or, translated into Latin, Facta Ficta. Of course facts are not fiction, but the way in which we interpret them often is. We need constantly to beware.
T. H. Huxley once wrote: "I am too much of a sceptic to deny the possibility of anything". Such scepticism does not allow us to opt out of making choices, and we may have many to make if we are to bequeath a healthy Earth to our children and grandchildren. We can continue on our present giddy course; we can try to take corrective action, while recognizing that anything we do may have unintended consequences; and we can - and should - school ourselves to expect the unexpected.
Above all we should remember when we juggle with the latest discoveries, the latest expression of world view, and the latest batch of apparent imperatives that together, or apart, they may be ephemeral. In short what seems the most solid reality ain't necessarily so.