Sustainable Development – Hope or Hoax?
Suffolk Humanists at the Friends’ Meeting House, Colchester, on 16th February 2006. Report of a talk by Jules Pretty, FRSA, FIBiol, Professor of Environment & Society at the University of Essex, by Peter Davidson
Professor Pretty’s talk was on sustainable development. He began by focusing on the general theme of human development, then assessing what the world looks like now, and trying to get a balance about how things might change, not only over a long period of time, but over the next forty years or so. In his view, there are some crises, such as oil shortages and rising sea levels, that are current or imminent, and that must be addressed as a matter of urgency, regardless of arguments over whether the cause is human behaviour.
For five million years, humankind was a species of hunter-gatherers and remained so until only 100,000 years ago, when we started co-operating in bigger settlements. These grew to bigger groupings or civilisations with recognisable cities appearing, such as Babylon and Ur in Mesopotamia, now part of Iraq. These evolved to what might be termed “mega-cities” in the present. However, the modern industrial age began only six to eight human generations ago, compared with the 300,000 generations that preceded it. If we were to fit the last five million years into one week, the industrial age would be represented by the last three seconds. Our experience of an industrial environment, rather than an agricultural or hunter-gatherer environment, is very recent.
So how has human evolution shaped us, and how are we now shaping the environment?
The biologists report that we have had five mass species extinctions. In Professor Pretty’s view, we are now in the sixth, due to human behaviour. As well as species extinction, there is language extinction. About one-half of human languages have disappeared. Another half will disappear by about 2020, along with their associated cultures, such as those in South America and Papua New Guinea. The language extinction is tied into the culture extinction, and it is culture extinction that is the impending crisis, because it progressively removes the world of “cultural literacy”; knowing how to cope in a wide range of environments.
Professor Pretty used photographs to show remnants of earlier civilisation decay, drawing initially on well-known examples, such as the remains of Inca settlements in South America. His commentary drew attention to two features: their abrupt ending, and the way in which the natural environment quickly takes over abandoned cities. He underscored this last point by slides of Prypiat in the Ukraine, the site of the Chernobyl accident. The site has been extensively monitored to track how nature responds to the abrupt disappearance – literally overnight – of a city. Striking features are the rapid return of species normally considered people-shy, such as wolves, and the species diversity that emerges in a short space of time; some twenty years.
Turning to population issues, Professor Pretty pointed out that, contrary to popular opinion, current forecasts predict a levelling out and decline over the next few decades, mainly due to fewer births in the developing world and in China, and to historically low levels of infant mortality.
In 1987, the Norwegian Bruntdland Commission defined the concept of “sustainable development: the meeting of the needs of the present generation without denying the needs of the next”, which has caught on politically, at least in rhetoric. One of the most iconic photographs from the early space shots was the sight of a blue-green Earth floating in space, the message being that there is only one earth; there is no back up. However, it is less easy to see tangible results on the ground.
One way of getting the message across is to condense the 6,400,000,000 million world population into an imaginary village of one hundred people; the “global village”. In population terms, we see that in 1950, the village had 36 inhabitants; in 1980, 68; in 2000, 100; in 2050, 150; and in 2150, about 100 (note the falling away in 150 years time). To provide for our village we need about 25 hectares of crops, 30 hectares of degraded surface, 57 hectares of good pasture and 69 hectares of forest. In the sea, we have a problem. The Atlantic fish yield per person declined 25-fold between 1970 and 2000. These are massive changes over a short time; if we do not adapt quickly we are deep trouble.
Professor Pretty then returned in more detail to the Prypiat study as an icon or microcosm of what can happen, and used it as thought-provoking touchstone. At the time of the accident, some 20,000 people were removed immediately, and over the next ten days, 100,000 were removed from the exclusion zone the size of Suffolk. Surprisingly, deaths resulting from the accident were few. There were thirty immediate deaths, mainly fire fighters. Close monitoring has disclosed no significant increase in radiological mortality, such as leukaemia and other cancers. In some respects, people from the zone have gained life expectancy from the increased monitoring, enabling early detection and treatment of cancers. However, some Prypiat people suffered new or variant psychiatric illnesses, variously dubbed dislocation disorders, seemingly a diffuse chronic problem stemming from the sudden complete collapse of their society. Many of these self-regulated by returning to the exclusion zone where they are much less anxious, reforming relationships and leading a self-sufficient life, isolated from the outside. If the rest of the world’s civilisations disappeared overnight, it wouldn’t affect these people in the slightest. However, they are all elderly people. They will die out as they are beyond reproductive age.
Professor Pretty suggested what we might learn from this:
1. Nature does not need us; it is resilient;
2. We need nature;
3. Civilisations can end abruptly.
His suggestions for the way forward include an international acceptance that the way forward is an “attractive economisation”, in which all countries accept that the environment is incapable of sustaining the rate of industrial growth to which we’re currently addicted.
In the question and answer session, there was a debate about the role of China, which is apparently working at breakneck speed to convert from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, and as such is likely soon to have more environmental impact than the whole of America.
“There were 176 operational staff on duty at the Chernobyl plant that night, and the subsequent efforts to contain the results of the disaster would eventually involve more than half a million men and women. Many of them were subjected to enormous doses of radiation; some were killed instantly; others died agonising deaths soon afterwards in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, and in the specialist radiological wards of Moscow’s Hospital No 6. The doses received by the hundreds of thousands of soldiers and reservists – ‘liquidators’ – who decontaminated the poisoned landscape of Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus were either classified or never officially recorded.”