THE MARCH TOWARD
DESTRUCTION OF THE
Humanity's use of natural resources - the so-called ecological footprint - has exceeded the regenerative capacity of Earth since the 1980s, and is now about 20 percent too great. If governments do not take action to halt this trend, then during the lifetime of our children human welfare will go into further decline. This is the key conclusion of a recent report by the environmental monitoring group, WWF International.
The ecological footprint is the total area of the planet that humans require for agriculture, grazing land, timber production, marine fishing and infrastructure, together with the area necessary for absorbing the carbon dioxide produced by burning oil, coal and other fossil fuels. At the current rate of consumption, the ecological footprint of all humankind will reach twice the regenerative capacity of Earth by 2050.
This gargantuan overconsumption is at the expense of the natural capital of the planet - the forests, the freshwater ecosystems and oceans - not to mention the livelihood of communities that directly depend on these resources. We can already see the effects: Since 1970, the Living Planet Index - a measure of the health of our planet's ecosystems - has declined by about 35 percent. Freshwater ecosystems have been particularly hard hit. They have declined 55 percent in the last 30 years.
The Earth has about 11 billion hectares (28 billion acres) of productive land and sea space, after all unproductive areas of ice caps, desert and open ocean are discounted. Divided between the global population of 6 billion people, this total equates to just 1.9 hectares per person. Yet the WWF report shows that the ecological footprint of the world average consumer in 1999 was 2.3 hectares per person, or 20 percent above Earth's biological capacity of 1.9 hectares per person.
People in different countries have vastly different ecological footprints. That of the average African or Asian consumer was less than 1.4 hectares per person in 1999, the average Western European's footprint was about five hectares, and the average North American's was about 9.6 hectares.
There are four fundamental changes that must be made to return to a sustainable development pathway.
First, we must improve the resource-efficiency with which goods and services are produced.
Second, we must consume resources more efficiently, and redress the disparity in consumption between high and low income countries.
Third, population growth must be controlled by promoting universal education and health care.
Fourth, it is imperative that we protect, manage and restore natural ecosystems to conserve biodiversity and ecological services. This will help maintain the planet's biological productivity, for the benefit of present and future generations.
We live on a bountiful planet, but not a limitless one. Bringing the human footprint back within the carrying capacity of Earth is the real challenge for the World Summit for Sustainable Development that opens in Johannesburg in August. The delegates should remember that the year 2050 is within the lifetime of most of our own children. Our overconsumption of natural resources today will affect the living standards not of an abstract "future generation" but of people we know and care about.
A government's responsibilities should include taking care of the long-term prospects of both the society it represents and the world in which that society lives. Yet from the behavior of many politicians, one could almost think their countries are on a different planet, so little bothered do they seem by the impact of their actions on their own and other societies.
A striking example of the narrow and short-term approach adopted by many governments is the way in which European powers support their fishing industries through massive subsidies. This practice has encouraged huge overfishing, which has led to the near-collapse of European fish stocks in recent years, notably in the North Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic Sea.
The overfishing is not limited to European waters. West African countries share one of the world's most productive coastal fisheries. European fishing fleets have increasingly been attracted to these waters. Technologically sophisticated trawlers and unfair access agreements with African countries strapped for foreign currency have had a devastating impact on the fish stocks.
What the Europeans are doing is exporting the excess capacity of their vastly over-sized fishing fleet of some 95,000 boats. In propping up their own unsustainable fishing industry - at taxpayers' expense - they are helping to destroy the livelihoods of African communities. If European governments do not act by reforming their Common Fisheries Policy by the end of 2002, the socioeconomic consequences will be disastrous, and not only in West Africa.
The delegates to the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg must also realize that without vision on the part of governments and their active engagement in sustainable development, the whole system of peaceful coexistence may be at stake. Attempting to solve one's own problems by exploiting the environmental wealth of other societies cannot be the way forward.
Sustainability on a global scale will undoubtedly become a key issue of the coming decades. Governments which fail to see this, and which fail to redesign their policies appropriately, will put at risk the future of the planet - their own people included, of course. They will also call into question the very purpose of government.
The writer, director-general of WWF International, based in Gland, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.
Written by: Claude Martin, International Herald Tribune
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