Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Future Perfect

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Future Perfect

Article excerpt

Before we can achieve sustainability, we must grasp what it means and identify the steps that will lead us from environmental degradation to sustainable health.

Our world is in trouble. The environment is under siege, and the Earth's resources are being depleted at an alarming rate. Acid rain, air and water pollution, deforestation, desertification, flooding, global warming, hazardous wastes, loss of biodiversity ozone depletion, water shortages, wetlands destruction--the list goes on and on--are all part of a malaise that is robbing us of our future.

Consider the following statistics:

* Each year some 20 million hectares (50 million acres) of tropical forests are grossly degraded or completely cleared in developing countries. [1]

* Each year air-pollution damage to forests in industrialized countries costs about US$35 billion--the equivalent of the gross domestic product of Hungary. [2]

* Desertification severely affects about 200 million people in developing countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, during the past 50 years, desertification has claimed an average of 1.3 million hectares (3.2 million acres) of productive land per year. [3]

* In South Asia, during the 40 years from 1960 to 2000, the percentage of people living in cities is expected to nearly double, from 17 percent to 30 percent, putting mounting pressure on housing, water supplies, waste treatment facilities, and the myriad other things that make up urban infrastructure. [4]

* Fossil fuel burning is releasing about 6 billion tons of carbon into the air each year. Oceans and forests, however, are capable of absorbing only 3 billion tons of these emissions. To allow the Earth's climate to return to equilibrium during the next few centuries, carbon emissions will have to be reduced to 2 billion tons per year or less. The growth rate of global carbon emissions is still more than 2 percent per year, however. [5]

Defining Terms

In 1987, in response to these and other concerns, the World Commission on Environment and Development published Our Common Future, which lays the foundation for our current understanding of sustainable development. This document, also known as the "Brundtland Report," recognizes that the present generation, through its use of natural resources and environmental services, is borrowing from future generations with no repayment plan. Sustainable development may represent the only option we have for paying back this loan.

Sustainable development, as defined in the Brundtland Report, is "development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." For development to be sustainable, the report concludes, three elements--environmental, economic, and social development--must all be present.

The World Bank also believes that sustainable development must be based on environmental, economic, and social elements. The World Bank argues, though, that the meaning of needs in the Brundtland definition of sustainable development is vague. How, for example, do you compare the needs of the poor in developing countries with the needs of the wealthy in industrialized countries? Moreover, how can you possibly anticipate what future generations will need?

On this matter, the World Bank deviates from the Brundtland Report and suggests that the goal of sustainability is "to leave future generations as many opportunities as, if nor more than, we have had ourselves." [6] To accomplish this goal, according to the World Bank, our stock of "capital" must grow.

The World Bank uses the term capital in its broadest sense to include not only produced assets, such as houses, roads, and factories, but also natural resources and human resources, including labor, investments in education and health care, and the cultural institutions that enable society to function. …

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