For quite some time now, economies around the world have laid overwhelming emphasis on growth rather than on development. Growth, in some of these countries, has come to symbolize unrestrained consumerism that has led to severe imbalance in the use and renewal of resources. Modern technology has churned out innumerable consumer products, the raw materials for which are extracted by the most incompetent of means. Waste and pollution have been the obvious results.
The hazards of environmental pollution have dawned only recently. But we express concern for the environment only when news of climate changes, the increasing cases of cancer, respiratory ailments and the threat to species begin to bother. Precautionary measures are much touted but rarely practised.
The Rio Earth Summit represented by 178 nations set goals for environmental improvement in 1992. An assessment by the United Nations in 1997 found that the conditions had worsened. Millions of hectares of cropland had been degraded, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide had increased and despite considerable growth recorded by many nations, billions of people were living in unhygienic conditions and far below the poverty line. It was found that in many poor countries, the cause of poverty lay in a shortage of resources to build up the economy. The conflict between the economy and the ecology has thus become more acute in the years between the Rio and the Johannesburg summits.
What we need most is sustainable development which means that today’s production and consmption patterns do not jeopardize the ability of future generations to satisfy their needs. But the term sustainable has come to mean what the market, and not the earth, can bear. Wealthier and more developed nations will not easily compromise on their growth pattern. While they pledge their wealth to protect the environment, large tracts of the earth are laid to waste by their industries. The “polluters pay” principle has come to mean that the rich can afford to pollute.
Sustainable production means the extraction and use of raw materials with minimum waste. Sustainable consumption is achieved by optimal use of natural resources and minimization of emissions and pollutants over the years. But today’s consumers have little thought for this thanks to the culture of subsidies, which, for example, would encourage the consumption of fossil fuel that is 10 to 15 times less renewable and clean than solar energy or wind power.
There are a host of other subsidies that promote excessive consumerism — increased use of vehicles, intensive agriculture, wasteful use of water, indiscriminate felling of trees and over-harvesting marine reserves. Such inconsiderate action have further distorted our economies and environment.
Emissions and environmental degradation would be checked to a great extent if wastes are recycled for further use. For example, cellulose used as the base material for pulp and paper, constitutes only 20-25 per cent of the wood from which it is extracted. The rest, consisting of lignin and hemicellulose, is wasted. But hemicellulose when hydrolized, produces a natural sweetener, xylitol, which is sweeter than sugar, does not create plaque on teeth and is low in calories. It is a fact that less than five per cent of the felled timber is used effectively.
If we can think of ways to use 100 per cent of the raw materials in our possession, then the pressure on our precious resources will reduce. Zero emission has to be another of the targets. Already several companies like DuPont, Ebara Corporation have publicly committed themselves to this objective.
We cannot expect the earth to produce more than its capacity. If we achieve sustainable development, there will be no need to restrain growth. There will also be little reason to sound alarms for the future.