Sustainability Is the Sensible Alternative

At every fork in the road, there is a road not taken. The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro was one of those defining moments when the world had a choice of paths to pursue. The Earth Summit marked a milestone with agreement by more than 178 countries on Agenda 21, the visionary blueprint for sustainable development. The path taken since then, regrettably, has not followed that vision of sustainability.

There has certainly been progress -- but it has come at a price. Since 1992, the average life expectancy for the world's seven billion people has increased by three and a half years. And despite adding 1.5 billion people since the Earth Summit, the world now produces enough food to feed everyone -- although not everyone has access to that food. Today, 27 percent of the world's population lives in absolute poverty, down from 46 percent in 1990.

At the same time, carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 38 percent since 1990. In the oceans, about 85 percent of all fish stocks are now overexploited, depleted, recovering or fully depleted. And close to two-thirds of the services provided by nature for human benefit are in decline, mostly due to habitat loss.

What all this suggests is that more people in the world are living better, but that the natural world that underpins this prosperity is constantly being eroded. There is, however, an alternative, and that brings us back to Agenda 21, which provided the general directions to balance our pursuit of prosperity and improved well-being with the protection of our environment.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon put it this way: "For most of the last century, economic growth was fuelled by what seemed to be a certain truth: the abundance of natural resources. We mined our way to growth. We burned our way to prosperity. We believed in consumption without consequences. Those days are gone."

He added, "In the 21st century, supplies are running short and the global thermostat is running high. Climate change is also showing us that the old model is more than obsolete. It has rendered it extremely dangerous. Over time, that model is a recipe for national disaster. It is a global suicide pact."

Why then, have we not enthusiastically taken the path toward sustainability? According to the UN High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, the biggest reason why sustainable development has not been put into action is that it has never been incorporated into the national and international policy debates. Most economic decision-makers, the Panel says, simply believe that sustainability is extraneous to their core responsibilities. Moreover, the lack of a set of indicators agreed upon by all countries has meant that the concept of sustainability has been used for many different things, making a global report difficult to compile.

But this lack of interest is only part of the problem. Sustainability gets lots of attention from other sources, but their portrayal of the concept defies reality. There is a growing movement by those who charge that sustainability and Agenda 21 are a direct assault on their lifestyle and freedoms. Armed with a bewildering array of false assertions, these detractors claim that Agenda 21 and sustainability is some sort of code for global government. They see in it a treaty that calls for the confiscation of private property and the loss of personal freedom, and they describe it as secular environmentalist extremism run amok. They have even charged that a program to encourage bicycle use was part of a strategy to rein in American cities under a United Nations treaty.

There are several crucial points that these critics conveniently disregard. They don't mention, for instance, that Agenda 21 is not a legally binding treaty. Or that it was unanimously agreed to by all countries representing virtually every type of government and economic system. Or that sustainability actually represents greater freedom, greater decision-making at the community level and greater opportunities for prosperity.

These movements, however, do not occur in isolation. The attacks on Agenda 21 are remarkably similar to the full-throated climate change denial movement that has seriously impeded progress on that issue.

This June, the UN is bringing the world together in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to launch a new drive to decisively reorient ourselves in a more sustainable direction. More than a hundred world leaders will be joined by CEOs and other business executives, as well as legions of community activists and other concerned members of society, and together they will make decisions and announce commitments that will move us toward the future we want. Rio+20 provides the opportunity to transform the global conversation into one of action on sustainability -- to depart from business as usual and take the road so far not travelled.

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