The scope of today’s environmental problems is fraught with catchwords such as greenhouse effect, depletion of the life-protecting (stratospheric) ozone layer, marine pollution, soil degradation and the loss of species and biotope diversity. Our steadily narrowing spectrum of consumed products from agriculture, forestry and fisheries, and the concentration on a few economically valuable species, has resulted in a specialization of land and marine food harvesting systems. Combined with the conversion of habitats, these are prime causes of species loss within any particular ecosystem. Obviously, all our activities, especially the harvesting of natural resources, have tremendous impact on the ecosystem. Equally obvious is the fact that non-sustainable harvesting, and causing the extinction of species, is ethically unacceptable and unjustifiable. Because we all need nature; for food, health and scientific innovation, the prevention of floods, droughts and epidemics, the mitigation of natural disasters, and of course we need wild places, animals and plants for recreation, renewal, and inspiration. Consequently, we need to consider the carrying capacity and flexibility of the economic and social systems, but also the cultural diversity, which helps people adapt to changing conditions. perhaps the biggest challenge is that our knowledge about the world tends to be organized in small segments. It is our fascination for parts and pieces that blinds us to the whole. What is needed instead is a holistic view that helps us understand patterns of complexity and interaction that point towards balance over time.
The internationally acknowledged basis for agreements on environmental protection, resource management, and conservation, relies on the principles of sustainable development and the maintenance of bio-diversity.
The concept of sustainable development, first introduced in the Brundland Commission’s report Our Common Future, is based on the realization that the conditions for economic activities will continue to deteriorate in the future, if the natural resources underlying these activities are destroyed at the present rate. By exploiting non-renewable raw materials, we consume resources as if making withdrawals from a limited saving account, without making deposits. At the same time, our species is using renewable resources above and beyond their regeneration capacity. The earth’s limited absorption capacity is strained by emissions and waste volumes, resulting in ecological costs that can no longer be ignored. In other words, to prevent future generations from suffering from shortages of natural resources, or a deterioration of environmental quality, this capital stock should at least be kept at a constant level. But rather than focussing on specific issues, such as resource availability and absorption capacity, I like to think of sustainable development as a means that helps preserve the vital functions of the environment, including the potential for change, evolution and self-regulation.
Bio-diversity is meant to be all-inclusive; it is the genetic-based variation of living organisms at all levels. It includes the world’s millions of species and the ecological systems they live in, ranging from Polar Regions with relatively few species, to the tropics with their great abundance of different life forms. Preserving bio-diversity provides us with at least three domains of benefit: the maintenance of our ecosystems in healthy condition, a potential source of new resources such as pharmaceuticals, crops, fibers etc., all holding economic value, and biophilia, a term used by E.O. Wilson to describe the natural affiliation humans have for the nature. It is our failure to recognize our connection with the global ecosystem that lies at the center of the biodiversity crisis facing our planet. We have to recognize that biological diversity is part of our heritage and is incomparably older and more complex than anything else.
Of the 5-30 million species that exist today, humans consume nearly half of the land-based ecosystem production, and 25% of all plant energy from the land and sea combined. Today there are less than 1 million elephants, but 100 million cattle on earth. These numbers do not reflect intrinsic worthiness, but rather developed usefulness. And yet, we must confront the demographic realities honestly, if we hope to create a sustainable lifestyle and preserve bio-diversity. Although nobody knows the exact rate of extinction, estimates are that about 26,000 species are lost each year, which means that three species are lost forever every hour. It is also commonly accepted that there is a relationship between habitat loss and species numbers. Reducing a habitat’s original size by 10% is thought to eventually lead to the numbers of species inhabiting that area dropping by half. Every species that disappears is a loss of evolutionary potential and potential resource. Human-caused extinction is believed to be between a thousand and ten thousand times greater than what it was before Man populated our planet. This is far in excess of the rate at which new species are being created. So again, we are quickly depleting the capital that took millions of years to create.
To better manage natural resources the following guidelines may be helpful:
- The depletion rates of renewable resources should not exceed their renewal rates;
- The consumption of non-renewable resources should be limited to levels at which they can either be replaced by physically, or functionally, equivalent renewable resources, or at which consumption can be offset by increasing the productivity of renewable or non-renewable resources;
- Disposal of any substances should take into account the maximum absorption capacity of the specific environment with all it’s functions, including ‘hidden’ and more sensitive regulating ones;
- There should be a balanced ratio between the time frame of man-made environmental footprints, and the time scale of the corresponding natural processes (reaction capacity of the environment).
In principle, a detailed evaluation of how to best address these challenges can be achieved in two ways: the first is inductive and based on the analysis and the assessment of selected substances and potential fields of application. The second is deductive, aimed at substantiating the model of sustainable development within a general context. In addition, we can distinguish between ecological, economic and social objectives, as well as between preservation and restructuring objectives.
Mankind faces the enormous challenge of developing a sustainable global society and economy. This constitutes one of the biggest opportunities in the history of commerce, with billions of dollars in revenues. Business and science, it seems, are the only organizations with the resources, technology, global reach and ultimately, the motivation to achieve this goal. However, the business and scientific communities have never developed appropriate mechanisms for interaction between them; nor have the critical relative balances of scientific knowledge, profit and societal benefits been satisfactorily established. We must strive to create an enduring and resilient society with a system of commerce and production where each and every act is inherently sustainable and restorative; where economics, natural and human systems are integrated and profitable, and expandable companies created that do not destroy, directly or indirectly, the world around them. In other words, the key to restoring and sustaining the earth’s environmental health lies in integrating and balancing the needs of both environmental and human systems through practical choices in pollution prevention, conservation, economic development and a societal shift towards preferences for sustainable products and services.
In the end, all this will contribute to a better understanding of the impact we have on our planet. You can’t have seven billion people growing and running around on a planet without having some major impacts. Right now we are making choices we don’t even understand; better to make an informed choice don’t you think? The technologies needed to stop, or at least slow, the possible dismal inheritance of our children and their children are available. It is the individual and society who will have to accept the necessary and profound changes in life styles, priorities and values as well as the enormous costs. The choices are ours. As Shakespeare succinctly said in one of his plays, ‘Delays have dangerous ends’.