Yesterday was “World Environment Day”, and it was commemorated under the theme “Ecosystem Restoration”. While the onslaught on our environment began in earnest with the launching of the Industrial Revolution in the West in the 18th century, its genesis is grounded in a Christian world view that gives man “dominion” over nature. This was secularised during the European Enlightenment and through their conquest of the world in the centuries following Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas, and has become the still dominant “world view”.
This exploitation of nature reached its zenith by the middle of the 20th century, by which time it was justified as a consequence of the thrust for “development” – especially following the independence of most of the colonialised world after the end of WWII. Even after it was recognised that “development” was epitomised by the living standards of the then US, which was utilising 25% of the world’s resources even though it had only 6% of its population, the remainder of the “developed” world – located in Europe and Canada – followed close on its heels, and were dubbed the “First World”. This was in comparison to the “Second World” of the USSR and its satellites, followed by the vast majority of humanity, including Guyana, China and India, being relegated to the “Third World”.
Not surprisingly, the “less developed” and “undeveloped” last two “worlds” set as their goal to catch up with the living standards of the “First World” by following in their “developmental” footsteps. Even though at that time some analysts recognised the unsustainability of that model, and suggested that the developed countries reorient their consumption patterns in line with the needs of the rest of the world, (as suggested by the best-selling book “Small is Beautiful”) this advice was ignored. The environmental movement was then launched to agitate against some of the most flagrant excesses that damaged our world, which provided the environment in which we had co-existed for a hundred thousand years.
The developed world attempted to shift the burden of rectifying the damage done to the environment to the “less developed” world that was trying to catch up with it. But by the turn of the new millennium, in 2000, the UN, comprised of all the countries in the world, reached a compromise between the need to improve standards of living versus the strain on the environment. The “Millennium Declaration”, signed in September 2000, committed world leaders to meet specified targets to combat poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation, and discrimination against women by 2015. The “environmental degradation” mostly referred to the inexorable rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere due to burning fossil fuels to drive the factories producing the goods that were now deemed necessary for the “good life”.
By then, many countries, led by China and a lagging India, lifted almost a billion people out of extreme poverty, and large swathes reached the living standards of the developed countries.
In 2015, the UN took cognizance of the need for greater action to balance the need for development versus the need to sustain the environment. They promulgated 17 “Sustainable Millennium Goals” (SMG) or Agenda 2030 that were to be reached at that time. The 17 SDGs are: (1) No Poverty, (2) Zero Hunger, (3) Good Health and Well-being, (4) Quality Education, (5) Gender Equality, (6) Clean Water and Sanitation, (7) Affordable and Clean Energy, (8) Decent Work and Economic Growth, (9) Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, (10) Reducing Inequality, (11) Sustainable Cities and Communities, (12) Responsible Consumption and Production, (13) Climate Action, (14) Life Below Water, (15) Life On Land, (16) Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions, (17) Partnerships for the Goals.
We in Guyana are very far away from even reaching the basic development goals, so while we appreciate the call for some citizens to reduce our carbon footprint and save our greenery, it must recognise that the world accepts there must be a balance between the two imperatives.
As to where the line must be drawn is an empirical as well as a moral exercise.