Contemporary society is in a transition and deep into the making of the first universal society for mankind, creation of a ‘one world’ where human wellbeing can no longer be separated from other human beings or from planetary welfare. Given the borderless and limitless nature of human existence today, this stage of human history is no less significant than when Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543) first elaborated his heliocentric model that was the genesis of a huge epistemological shift in human development with the sun at the centre of the universe.
In September 2001, a BBC nature documentary series ‘The Blue Planet’ narrated by David Attenborough contributed to the first step in the next paradigmatic shift in conceptualizing the vulnerability of the sole living planet in the universe whose very survival was at stake and what this meant for the inhabitants living there. The idea that humanity is only a part shareholder, living within a planetary whole whose resources are not only at the disposal of its inhabitants, but also limited in its scope contributed enormously to the new epistemological framework of sustainability and its rhetorics on how we are going to design our lives in the present and plan our lives on earth in future.
That this society is heavily driven by technology, creating a highly specialized technologically augmented consciousness both at the human and social level, is both good and bad news. Technology dependence can be a bane when we lose human connections with nature and other human beings, and confront its glooming consequences in toxic wastes, bio-degradation, wasteful consumption, livelihood depletion, etc.
On the other hand, technology and its neutrality can be a huge boon for societies at both ends of the economic hierarchy. At the lower end, it can ensures egalitarianism and democratic justice when groomed as social technology for services such as education, health, justice, fighting corruption, etc.
At the higher end, the same neutrality can transcend narrow market interests to reach global humanism, set up an economic value system that is not just market-centric but truly benefits human sustenance and liberation. An emancipated technological intervention is driven by a powerful value-system that orients innovations and economy within the limitations of our bio-physical constraints for restoration of natural and social capital.
For example, innovations for lower carbon footprint and resource consumption, clean technologies minimizing waste and toxic emissions, green manufacturing initiatives for internalizing aspects of product life cycle management such as Cradle-to-Cradle, Design for Serviceability and Recyclability, etc. are all issues that point towards a paradigm shift in the values that have conventionally driven Business as Usual (BAU) practices..
What clearly emerges from this understanding is that there is a critical need for an inspiring yet practical vision of a sustainable world in future and a road-map to help us get there. While it is an inarguably important fact that for decades society has had to react to seemingly endless series of environmental crises, e.g. oil-spill, deforestation, pollution, toxics, endangered species, and now global warming, however the environmental community has not been strategic on most occasions because they have been better at articulating what they are against rather than what they are for, and hence have failed to conceive an overarching goal of what we want to achieve, one that provides a framework independent of specific actions, assessing past accomplishments and planning for the future.
It is now clear according to Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of Yale Project of Climate Change that ‘Environmental crisis is global in scale, elongated in time, and interwoven with global trends far beyond the scope of conventional environmentalism. Environment can no longer be separated from issues such as current economic crisis, capital flows and globalization, advances in science and technology and medicine, mass urbanization and migrations, revolutions in computing and communications, changing lifestyle and levels of affluence in the world’.
What this goes on to prove is that no matter where we try to begin our understanding of contemporary society and concern to live a life that is sustainable, just and fulfilling, the answer cannot be sought without perceiving the mesh of interconnected problems of interwoven issues whose solutions lie in the realization of the systemic crises. This also brings us to appreciate the relevance of a much more elevated and transcending realization of universalism and justice in today’s world like never before, as it dawns on humanity how perpetuation of the self can only be ensured through the selfless accommodation of even the smallest living systems on earth.
Viewing the world from the perspective of ‘our own blue planet’, let us ponder on some of the most striking interwoven problems of contemporary society that can be translated into the most urgent issues of crises:
1. The ecological footprint of this planet is very high (impact on the planet).
2. The planet is being used in majorly unfair ways (United States alone with population strength of 5% consumes about 35 percent of the world’s natural resources).
3. Population is growing disproportionate to the growth of resources.
4. It is borderless and limitless in terms of interconnections: both between human beings and between humans and nature.
5. We live in a world with a staggering young population.
6. There is incongruency between the economic subsystem and the larger fixed system that is running up against the limits of our planet’s capacity to sustain life.
7. There is also incongruency between economic achievements on one hand and happiness and human well being on the other.
These issues create an abysmal level of challenges that can be briefly and modestly expressed as:
a. How to create and communicate a shared vision for a sustainable and desirable future.
b. Staggering global income inequality leads to an inability to merge interests of the interest groups on either side of the globe. Due to the grossly unequal consumption patterns, often places with the most rapidly expanding populations are using very few resources and most interventions aimed at stabilizing global population have been driven by the most over-consuming parts of the world. This raises questions about human rights violation, especially women’s rights and equity.
c. A catastrophe like Bhopal or Chernobyl disaster or even a bird flu epidemic can no longer be contained within man-made national boundaries. Impoverishment and development deficit in one part of the world may have severe repercussions for socio-economic dynamics of another country, large scale brain-drain and illegal immigration to the developed world.
d. The developing world has a hugely growing young population. By 2050, there will be between 4 to 6 million people that have risen into middle classes. The choices these people make as they rise to affluence and fulfill their aspirations by emulating the ways of the developed world that has already led the most wasteful and unsustainable life, are important e.g. the lobbying of automobile corporations and invasion of the so called cheap cars in the market.
e. Disregard for the free ecosystem services, externalizing cost in industrial production.
All of this together creates a torque on the planet that is simply unthinkable in terms of the challenges confronting us. So what is the alternative, we don’t know and at this moment it is also unimaginable in terms of the solutions we need to adopt.
In the words of Alex Steffen, founder of an online magazine “Worldchanging” and author of “Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st century, ‘We don’t know at this moment how to create a world that is environmentally sustainable, sharable with everybody, that promotes stable democracy and human rights achievable in terms of the time-frame necessary to make it through the challenges that we face’.
The issues that emerge are not only disastrous in terms of the scale of their impact but also fairly well dispersed and distributed because of the unique nature of today’s technologically augmented transnational and trans-border capitalist economy which if allowed to go astray can guzzle up every small element in the hierarchy of the life-system of the planet as a whole. Insulation and protection of manmade national borders through economic sanctions, complicated foreign policies and physical quarantine are hardly enough to resist modes of connectivity.
This connectivity is most visible when we consider the gradual erosion of traditional and unique local forms by the creation of modern forms and institutions that are identical globally and that work within the embedded values of growth, prosperity, affluence and greed. Similarly impacts on environment all over the world have been found to be caused by factors such as overpopulation, misplaced value system of over consumerism and consumption patterns, energy inefficient production processes, overstraining of limited natural resources/ fossil fuels/ ecosystem services, etc.
If we trace the natural course of human history from the early stages of capitalist formation, we can easily see how the characteristics of the modern capitalist value system unfold through events of environmental destruction, human exploitation, growing economic consumption and consumerism. In the earlier phases, the impact of this extractive value system could be contained within pockets of geographical limits.
However, all this has changed with an exaggerated pace with the intervention of technology that created an express highway for communication. It is being increasingly realized that the grave challenges that confront humanity and its institutional framework can only be addressed by a total restructuring and reconstruction of our collective conscience. This reconstruction has to begin with local initiatives with a global vision addressing every human relationship with its extended environment, including nature and every other living form on earth.
It is only by consolidation and permeation of this paradigm shift in the dominant values of our times that we can control the unbridled exploitation of scarce natural resources to meet the increasing energy dependence, reduce the use of renewable sources of energy, adopt locomotive substitution, and carefully use technological advances to drive resource use efficiency and preserve and further indigenous technology and knowledge systems to maintain local ecosystem resources.
To be able to merge the multi-faceted tenets of Sustainability from both the developed and the developing world standpoint, is not only an important perspective, but is also loaded with urgency as the world tries to grapple with issues such as population explosion, poverty, environmental degradation, human health challenges, and climate change.
While the West engages in somewhat silent atonement because of overconsumption, toxicity, and breakdown of community life; East tries to meet the challenges of livelihood destruction, democratic deficit, breakdown of traditional institutions, and conflict. The location of the voices varies but the essence of depravity and despair is the same.
The authors are founders of ‘Global Initiative for Sustainable Development and Planning’ GISDP, in NECRD (North East Centre For Research and Development), IGNOU (Indira Gandhi National Open University), Guwahati.