From Rio to Cancun: Much talk, little action

Thursday, 16 December 2010 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

In the early 1970s I was trained to be a resource economist. My specialisation was in Coastal Zone Management and I had the opportunity to be exposed to the work of the originator of the concept of conservation economics Ciriacy-Wantrup of the University of Oregon (1965) and its later proponent, Kenneth Watt of University of California at Davis.

Dr. Watt had by that time (1975) written a path-breaking book: ‘The Titanic Effect,’ which in effect predicted the possibility of a breakdown of the then mighty US economy. While that period witnessed the first-ever energy crisis that impacted the world at large, the real impact of what he predicted occurred, several decades later in 2008 with the failing of that economy and the global meltdown of never before seen proportions.

At the East West Centre in Hawaii, as students, we undertook a study to determine how valid the belief and action systems of the dominant Western culture were at the time, given its impact on the short, medium and long term future of humankind.

We took on beliefs such as ‘chemical fertiliser enhances production,’ ‘Big is better,’ ‘Growth is good,’ ‘Good of the self, before the good of the many,’ etc. Titled ‘The Unsteady State; Problems of Growth, Culture and Environment,’ a two-year study took on issues of resource limitations, the need for conservation, follies of overconsumption, dependence on assets that had no real value, over reliance on a cash- based culture, offer of unlimited choices to consumers, production of useless goods and services, follies of opulence and the like.

Research proved that while some of these beliefs held in the short and medium terms, none of them were valid in the longer-term. Findings were discussed in a backdrop where, like now, dominant positions in the global economy and political systems were held by those who had ownership of oil and other non-renewable resources and those the likes of Dr. Watt were labelled ‘Doomsday Soothsayers’.

Humankind’s greed

It was with a deep sense of Asian pride that those of us who were privy to the ‘not so dominant’ belief system heard Dr. Watt share with us the wisdom of Mahatma Ghandi. He said that several decades earlier Ghandi-Ji had said that “there is enough on this earth to meet all of humankind’s needs, but not its greed.” Today, so many years after those words were shared, we are still grappling with our inability to face that reality.

Back here in Sri Lanka, we have a heritage and history of being conservationists. Being the first in human history to have officially declared a wildlife sanctuary, King Devanampiyatissa in the 3rd Century B.C. set that tradition in place.

In the fifties and thereafter, the likes of Thilo Hoffman, Lyn de Alwis, Vere de Mel, Chris Panabokke, Arthur Clarke, Iranganie Serasinghe, Nihal Fernando, Ranjan Fernando and Sarath Kotagama were its early proponents.

In addition to the ‘Wild Life Nature Protection Society,’ which had been established during the British rule, fresh movements such as ‘Ruk Rakaganno,’ ‘March for Conservation,’ ‘Young Zoologists Association,’ ‘Environmental Forum,’ ‘Federation of Environmental Journalists,’ etc. were set up in the 1970s to take on assertive conservation action.

Programmes such as the Coast Conservation Department (1978) and the National Aquatic Resources Agency (1984) were established as new initiatives adding on the then in existent Forest and Wild Life Conservation Departments. The ‘National Environmental Authority’ came into being in 1981 as the umbrella organisation and coordinator, overseeing all environmental affairs in the country.

Tourism, which was a mainstream economic activity during this period, became an integral part of the conservation movement and contained a built-in sensitivity, avoiding some of the pitfalls of other similar destinations.

Global front

On the global front, the first-ever worldwide organisation for conservation, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had been in existence since 1948. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) came into being in 1961 and it was the Stockholm conference on the Human Environment held in 1972, which led to the formation of what we know today, as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The UNEP, IUCN, WWF and others like them for several decades now, have worked on ‘protecting’ or ‘conserving’ resources that are placed under duress and stress due to excessive or indiscriminate utilisation. Mitigation action, setting in place legislation and treaties to effect conservation, programmes for education and creating awareness have all been in place.

Yet, on the ground, the denudation of resources and the impact Mother Earth’s elitist inhabitants had on her health were taking catastrophic proportions. There were very basic and major issues that needed to be addressed. This was the disappointment the world’s conservation activists expressed loud and clear, at the much touted ‘Earth Summit’ held in Rio de Janeiro in 1991.

It was at this conference that a clear shift of focus was made in looking at the earth’s environment. It was decided that the focus needed to be extended beyond the conservation of specific resources to also regaining the overall sound health of the only planet we have to live and do business in.

It was also the first time, when demands were made of governments, corporate interests and other policy makers to look to ways of limiting our wasteful ways. Grass-root activists and organisations were invited to join in to be sitting alongside governments and corporate interests to seek solutions also for the very first time.

Just last week in Cancun, Mexico, another annual round of UN’s global climate change talks concluded. As was at the Kyoto conference and the subsequent protocol and last year’s formation of a new grouping of countries for climate action initiated by President Obama, in Copenhagen, this time too, last minute agreement has been reached to bring out a balanced package including a Green Climate Fund, a promise to keep global warming below two degrees Centigrade and action programmes on adaptation, forest protection and technology cooperation. Activists described the situation as being “far from perfect, yet it represents some progress for negotiators to build on next year.”

Freak weather

Last week and the weeks before here, in Sri Lanka, we witnessed freak weather and in Europe and parts of the US winters were severe. It is evident from the climate change movement’s claims, IPCC’s scientific findings, Pacific and other island leaders’ calls to action, farmers’ laments of crazy weather cycles and the yells of the many victims of earth quakes, tornados, floods, forest fires and tsunamis that all is certainly not well in our midst.

In spite of the many resolutions made, protocols signed and agreements reached, we are yet to see real action being taken on a scale that can have a real impact on mitigating the causes of climate change and resultant global warming, its impact on rising sea levels and on bio-diversity hotspots around the world.

Yet again, we see many conferences, seminars and workshops held. Much donor funding is spent on some useful but mostly not so useful initiatives. Carbon off set mechanisms undertaken by those doing good to make money, is allowing those capable of paying to buy credit so they could move on to pollute elsewhere.

The need for business to preserve biodiversity is being talked about, while the very entities are engaged in production processes of non-essentials, that carter to providing unlimited choices to consumers.

The ‘tamashas’ oozing of opulence is a hall-mark feature in both the corporate world as much as in Government circles. Austerity has only been limited to words. Mahatma-Ji’s words and the climate movement’s call have been taken more in violation than in compliance.

Need of the hour

What we need today is more and more action on the ground, on our production processes, at our homes and with our lifestyles, where greed will need to be subdued, focusing more on the basics of needs. There is a dire need for us to look at the realities of sustaining what we do. We know that politicians, governments and corporate entities will respond to the demands and the will of the people. Shaping that will take rational thinking, extending beyond the now and tomorrow to the future. That is a future where our children and theirs will be able to live happily, in harmony with their environment.

There were several global citizens’ movements such as, and that were active in creating pressure on climate negotiators at all of these UN events. Here is what the’s commentary said on what its expectations and hopes were on the future of climate negotiations:

“The feeling of momentum emerging from Cancun was refreshing: countries rebuilt trust, and wrestled with difficult issues like deforestation and transparency. This trust was in serious doubt after last year’s failed negations in Copenhagen – and even in the final hours of negotiations in Cancun. These countries will now have to negotiate with the world’s climate – and the physics and chemistry that govern the climate won’t negotiate. In the wake of the modest progress achieved in Cancun, it’s tempting to overlook the fact that delegates mostly avoided the real crux of the negotiations: exactly how much will countries (including businesses) reduce their planet-heating emissions?”

It added: “We didn’t get involved in this movement to condemn or cheer: we got in it to win. To do that, we’ll have to win our country’s capitols first, and to do that, we’ll have to organise in all the communities where we live. We’ve begun that work, but we still have much more work to do. We will do it with hope, with passion, and with unwavering determination. And above all, we will do it together.”

Indeed, a lot of food for thought, then on to action and that is the clarion call.

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