Wednesday, October 22, 2014
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Sustainable Humanity

ADDIS ABABA – Sustainable development means achieving economic growth that is widely shared and that protects the earth’s vital resources. Our current global economy, however, is not sustainable, with more than one billion people left behind by economic progress and the earth’s environment suffering terrible damage from human activity. Sustainable development requires mobilizing new technologies that are guided by shared social values.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has rightly declared sustainable development to be at the top of the global agenda. We have entered a dangerous period in which a huge and growing population, combined with rapid economic growth, now threatens to have a catastrophic impact on the earth’s climate, biodiversity, and fresh-water supplies. Scientists call this new period the Anthropocene – in which human beings have become the main causes of the earth’s physical and biological changes. 

The Secretary-General’s Global Sustainability Panel has issued a new report that outlines a framework for sustainable development. The GSP rightly notes that sustainable development has three pillars: ending extreme poverty; ensuring that prosperity is shared by all, including women, youth, and minorities; and protecting the natural environment. These can be termed the economic, social, and environmental pillars of sustainable development, or, more simply, the “triple bottom line” of sustainable development.

The GSP has called for world leaders to adopt a new set of Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, that will help to shape global policies and actions after the 2015 target date for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Whereas the MDGs focus on reducing extreme poverty, the SDGs will focus on all three pillars of sustainable development: ending extreme poverty, sharing the benefits of economic development for all of society, and protecting the Earth.

It is, of course, one thing to set SDGs and quite another to achieve them. The problem can be seen by looking at one key challenge: climate change. Today, there are seven billion people on the planet, and each one, on average, is responsible for the release each year of a bit more than four tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This CO2 is emitted when we burn coal, oil, and gas to produce electricity, drive our cars, or heat our homes. All told, humans emit roughly 30 billion tons of CO2 per year into the atmosphere, enough to change the climate sharply within a few decades.

By 2050, there will most likely be more than nine billion people. If these people are richer than people today (and therefore using more energy per person), total emissions worldwide could double or even triple. This is the great dilemma: we need to emit less CO2, but we are on a global path to emit much more.

We should care about that scenario, because remaining on a path of rising global emissions is almost certain to cause havoc and suffering for billions of people as they are hit by a torrent of droughts, heat waves, hurricanes, and more. We have already experienced the onset of this misery in recent years, with a spate of devastating famines, floods, and other climate-related disasters.

So, how can the world’s people – especially its poor people – benefit from more electricity and more access to modern transportation, but in a way that saves the planet rather than destroys it? The truth is that we can’t – unless we improve dramatically the technologies that we use.

We need to use energy far more wisely while shifting from fossil fuels to low-carbon energy sources. Such decisive improvements are certainly possible and economically realistic.

Consider the energy inefficiency of an automobile, for example. We currently move around 1,000 to 2,000 kilograms of machinery to transport only one or just a few people, each weighing perhaps 75 kilograms (165 lbs.). And we do so using an internal combustion engine that utilizes only a small part of the energy released by burning the gasoline. Most of the energy is lost as waste heat.

We could therefore achieve huge reductions in CO2 emissions by converting to small, lightweight, battery-powered vehicles running on highly efficient electric motors and charged by a low-carbon energy source such as solar power. Even better, by shifting to electric vehicles, we would be able to use cutting-edge information technology to make them smart – even smart enough to drive themselves using advanced data-processing and positioning systems.

The benefits of information and communications technologies can be found in every area of human activity: better farming using GPS and micro-dosing of fertilizers; precision manufacturing; buildings that know how to economize on energy use; and, of course, the transformative, distance-erasing power of the Internet. Mobile broadband is already connecting even the most distant villages in rural Africa and India, thereby cutting down significantly on the need for travel.

Banking is now done by phone, and so, too, is a growing range of medical diagnostics. Electronic books are beamed directly to handheld devices, without the need for bookshops, travel, and the pulp and paper of physical books. Education is increasingly online as well, and will soon enable students everywhere to receive first-rate instruction at almost a zero “marginal” cost for enrolling another student.

Yet getting from here to sustainable development will not just be a matter of technology. It will also be a matter of market incentives, government regulations, and public support for research and development. But, even more fundamental than policies and governance will be the challenge of values. We must understand our shared fate, and embrace sustainable development as a common commitment to decency for all human beings, today and in the future.

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  1. CommentedKen Peterson

    After reconsidering my statement of a couple of weeks ago, I've embarrassed myself. If I complain about a lack of vision, I should give an example. OK...

    As we look with foreboding at the inevitable leadership of the Chinese economy, still we favorably compare patents, innovation, entrepreneurship as well as Chinese-American point guards. Possibly it's time for us to use our ingenuity, skip a step and move on to the latter 21st Century.

    We know what we're facing: 2.8% economic growth -25 year doubling- over 300 years is 4000%+-. Economic growth seems to be tied to a growth in consumption of energy. Agricultural growth is tied to non-renewable petroleum products and water. Many of our most fundamental economic components -housing, for instance- are tied to other non-renewables on a small planet; space.

    One thing that we will inevitably do is move our economy from industries tied to consumption of non-renewables, to recyclables. Products will be designed to be remelted and pumped out in the newer fashion. Some products made for a lifetime's use- cradle to grave wedding gifts.
    Services rather than products: education, entertainment, information. Smith, Marx, and Keynes all looked to the time we had a sufficiency of 'stuff', and eliminated poverty by passing the 'stuff' around. Then, we could all work 30 hour weeks. Possibly spend the rest of our time writing poetry or engaged in orgy's. Sad to say, I'll probably opt for poetry.

    We know it's coming- the end of consumption. Any 6th grader can do the math. If we get ahead of it, this silly leadership thing can be resolved.

  2. CommentedSandee Roberts

    I totally agree that we all need to understand our shared fate and I am commitment to decency for all human beings.

    The world situation is changing rapidly, and I think we are in need of an integral method of educating humanity so everyone will be prepared for the many changes coming our way.

    Unemployment is on the rise, and hundreds of millions of people who will lose work because the crisis will destroy all the industries that are not vitally important. What will the people do who produced what no one needs any longer? http://www.shadowstats.com/

    We are also seeing that protest movements are growing due to the Internet, with all our mutual communications and influence on each other. All humanity, from the ordinary citizens to their governments, is interested in bringing this process under their control and preventing its development. All our modern weapons plus the unpredictable future events can lead us to such disastrous results.

    In order for us to prevent all kinds of disasters, civil or even world wars, we need to think in advance about global, integral upbringing of the majority of the population.

  3. CommentedSandee Roberts

    Thank you for this article.

    I believe that it is impossible to achieve any sustainable development between peoples without mutual responsibility.


    There are many various methods and plans, but they are totally incapable of being compared to each other. No one has the answer to this question because it is impossible to achieve any solution between peoples without first seeing everyone as one family.

    I think a sustainable development would look something like a round table where everyone, like a family, discuss common problems and you would feel that everyone is equally close to you. Only then could we begin to distribute our common pie and solve the problems between us, only together with each of us and consulting each other and taking all our opinions into consideration. Are we really ready for this? Probably not! But we see that we are all being pushed in this direction. We are discovering that there is no other way to find the answers, because the real issue lies between our relationships with each other.

    How can we achieve equality between us? How can we balance these two parts of humanity? The poor, do you not want the rich? The rich, do you see that you can no longer control anything? But you, the rich enjoy managing and gaining much pleasure from the money in your bank account, but now you are in suffering because there are less zeroes there. The continually increasing gains approach is not benefiting society as a whole, so the question I have for you is can society give something else instead of money? Is money the only thing that satisfies all of humanity in today's world?

      CommentedSandee Roberts

      I have read the "new report" and greatly appreciate it's approach! Thank you.

  4. CommentedMary Kay Plantes

    As an economist, I am familiar with the arguments for specialization and trade. But, as I look at how the world is evolving, I wonder if we would be better off with less trade, reducing transportation emissions and only trading that which is essential e.g., precious minerals or agricultural plants and advice that help a poor nation grow more food. I was in China for the first time and saw how terrible its pollution is (e.g., airports closed as pl=ilots cannot see through small particle emissions which are the most damaging kinds) due to using archaic coal plant technology. Would not a buy local world, with China shifting to domestic production be better net net for the environment and poor people in need of work? Would appreciate your perspectives. It's been a long while since my international course. At a minimum, I think China with its foreign currency wealth should be held to higher environmental standard to be part of WTO.

  5. CommentedKen Peterson

    I wonder if this organization is run by the same people who structured the Obama administration? You don't know 'how' or 'where' to find answers to humanities problems. Then, like the blind pig, having found an acorn, you don't know 'what' to do with it.
    There is a 'degree of complexity' inherent in the structure of any organization implying the overall capability of the organization. This is an organization of talkers and thinkers involved in advancing the cause of talking and thinking.
    The foolish world admires the ineffectual thinker while scorning the man with the hammer in his hand.

      CommentedGreg Ivanov

      "This is an organization of talkers and thinkers involved in advancing the cause of talking and thinking." How true!

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