Whose Earth Is It Anyway? (Unconventional-A Point of View)

By Johnson, Huey D. | UN Chronicle, September 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Whose Earth Is It Anyway? (Unconventional-A Point of View)


Johnson, Huey D., UN Chronicle


 
"The law locks up both man and woman, 
Who steals the goose from off the common, 
But lets the greater felon loose, 
Who steals the common from the goose." 
 
--Anonymous 

"Sustainability" is a word invented to establish a process of growth that would enhance the quality of life for all people. This world attempt at sustainability is about balancing the health of the environment and social considerations with economic efficiency, and without such a balance, they are often meshed in conflict. The problem is that the economic dimension has overwhelmed the environmental and social aspects, limiting the success of sustainability as a concept.

While economics itself is a useful tool, the emphasis of the global economy solely on economic efficiency has failed to adequately consider environmental quality, cultural values, heritage and human rights. The result has been to ignore valuable human heritage, while allowing private economic-profit motives to intrude on long-standing, publicly-owned resources like air and water. The global scale push-for-profits and privatization has led to environmental degradation and declining quality of life that will affect our human existence everywhere. It is time to audit the results of the economic dominance in the hope that another attempt at a balance is possible.

My criticism of economics is backed by personal and professional experience. I've worked, studied and travelled in many parts of the world, in order to understand the relationship between heritage and environmental policy. Equally important, I have worked and thrived in highly competitive free-market economic conditions. At first, I chose to pursue other directions because of concern for future generations; now that I have grandchildren, my concern is greater still. It is based on my observations that economic growth as a world policy without a plan or recognition of limits and with its increased consumption cannot be sustained. In fact, it is threat to their future.

Years ago, I enjoyed a two-year sojourn, alone, wandering around the world. I made the journey to have a better understanding of nations, cultures and histories. My observations have formed both negative and positive conclusions. Sadly, I reflect that much of the conflict in human history was and is based on human competition for natural resources. On the positive side, there have been many cultural examples of human innovation, solving what had to be difficult problems at the time. Those experiences evolved over time to become our human culture.

I ran a government environmental agency with a billion-dollar annual budget, with responsibilities that included managing in a drought, floods and fires. I had a large regulatory responsibility and established a successful cooperative plan with industries on energy, water, forestry fisheries and related issues. I have enjoyed a forty-year career as an environmental activist and in 2001 received the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Sasakawa Environment Prize, an annual award presented by the United Nations. This has been the pinnacle of my career because an international committee of peers independent of the United Nations and UNEP awarded it.

The world is struggling with enormous challenges. At the core of these problems is the management and distribution of natural resources--in many ways the same problems that ancient Rome failed to solve, but still exist today on a global scale. It is timely to write this article to reflect further on the crucial issue of economic growth at the expense of the health of the environment and quality of life on Earth. I see this era of "all things economic" as but another chapter in human history.

I see three problems in the economic emphasis of recent years. The first is the attempt at privatization--the taking-over of public assets, like water and air, which is in conflict with law and tradition.

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