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World View : Learning to Give as Much as We Take From Earth : * 'Sustainability' offers hope for activists who say the human species is multiplying faster than renewable resources.

January 18, 1994|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In a tiny overcrowded office at the Brookings Institution, a prominent Washington think tank, a new computer program code-named "Sugarscape" has simulated the patterns of life--and created new visions of the Earth's future.

Some 7,500 miles away in Arabuko Sokoke, the largest remaining coastal forest in East Africa, Kenya's Museum Society has launched a new program with the Giriama tribe to harvest butterflies for export--and to help alleviate local poverty.

And in El Paraiso, Honduras, World Neighbors, an Oklahoma-based humanitarian aid group, is teaching women to make basic medicines out of back-yard plants--cough syrup out of bougainvillea flowers, for example--both to improve their health and their self-esteem.

The link between Brookings, butterflies and El Paraiso is one of the broad new principles--and buzzwords--now giving direction and shape to the post-Cold War world: sustainability.

Promoted by the U.N. World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987, sustainability was originally defined as efforts that "meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the needs of future generations." In other words, encouraging economic growth while also preserving the environment--goals once considered incompatible.

But seven years later, the term is also associated with a quiet revolution redefining the national security agenda, overhauling concepts of foreign aid and providing a great new impetus to political change worldwide. It's effectively become a new barometer of human progress.

"Sustainable development is the sine qua non of the new world order," said Gus Speth, U.N. Development Program chief.

"Sustainability is now essential to achieve all of the major international goals of the United States or any other country--peace, democratization, disease control, migration control, environmental protection and population stabilization."

The revolution comes none too soon. The Worldwatch Institute's "State of the World 1994," published this week, offers several dire new warnings, including one on food scarcity.

After 40 years of record food production gains, output per person has reversed with "unanticipated abruptness." Human demands are now "approaching the limits of oceanic fisheries to supply fish, of rangelands to support livestock, and, in many countries, of the hydrological cycle to produce fresh water," it reports.

By 1993, the fish catch per person had declined 7% from a historic high in 1989. Grain production per person in 1993 was 11% less than in the peak year of 1984.

"The world's farmers can no longer be counted on to feed the projected additions to our numbers. . . . As the nineties unfold, the world is facing a day of reckoning," Worldwatch warns.

The report is only the latest red flag. In 1992, 1,600 scientists, including 102 Nobel laureates, issued a "warning to humanity."

"No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished. . . . A new ethic is required (which) must motivate a great movement, convincing reluctant leaders and reluctant governments and reluctant peoples themselves to effect the needed changes," it said.

Sustainability appears to be the most effective response, according to U.N., U.S. and World Bank development specialists.

"Development thinking has progressed from a focus on per capita income in the 1960s to social indicators in the 1970s to political dimensions in the 1980s to environmental sustainability concerns in the 1990s," Speth said.

Over 70 countries have established councils on sustainable development, while the five-year U.N. development program has been revised to focus on sustainable projects. Even the World Bank, often criticized for shortchanging ecology issues, now helps borrowers with "environmental action plans." And last year, the United States adopted sustainability as a policy goal.

Yet a key problem of sustainability is that neither ecologists nor economists have fully determined Earth's limits--or how sustainability can soon be achieved, according to John D. Steinbruner, director of foreign policy studies at Brookings.

All past projections were flawed. In the 18th Century, English economist Thomas Malthus' theory on the geometric spiral of population growth and its environmental impact turned out to be simplistic. In the 1970s, the Club of Rome's predictions about the future were widely believed to be excessively alarmist.

And despite studies of the Worldwatch Institute and other groups, many mainstream economists contend market forces are sufficiently flexible to alleviate future ecological threats.

Creating a Model

To help finally settle that debate, Brookings, the World Resources Institute and the Santa Fe Institute have launched Project 2050, a collaborative project to address critical questions. What constitutes a sustainable society? What is the critical time period? And what strategies promote sustainability?

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