PublicationBook Chapter Energy for Sustainable and Equitable Development — In support of the Papal Encyclical

July 10, 2015
Publication Type:
Book Chapter

Joint Work­shop of the Pon­tif­i­cal Acad­emy of Sci­ences and the Pon­tif­i­cal Acad­emy of Social Sci­ences, 2–6 May 2014

Are Humanity’s deal­ings with Nature sus­tain­able? What is the sta­tus of the Human Per­son in a world where sci­ence pre­dom­i­nates? How should we per­ceive Nature and what is a good rela­tion­ship between Human­ity and Nature? Should one expect the global eco­nomic growth that has been expe­ri­enced over the past six decades to con­tinue for the fore­see­able future? Should we be con­fi­dent that knowl­edge and skills will increase in such ways as to lessen Humanity’s reliance on Nature despite our increas­ing eco­nomic activ­ity and grow­ing num­bers? Is the grow­ing gap between the world’s rich and world’s poor in their reliance on nat­ural resources a con­se­quence of those growths?
Con­tem­po­rary dis­cus­sions on the ques­tions are now sev­eral decades old. If they have remained alive and are fre­quently shrill, it is because two oppos­ing empir­i­cal per­spec­tives shape them. On the one hand, if we look at spe­cific exam­ples of what one may call nat­ural cap­i­tal, there is con­vinc­ing evi­dence that at the rates at which we cur­rently exploit them, they are very likely to change char­ac­ter dra­mat­i­cally with lit­tle advance notice. The melt­ing of glac­i­ers and sea-​​ice are recent symp­toms. On the other hand, if we study trends in food con­sump­tion, life expectancy, and recorded incomes in regions that are cur­rently rich and in those that are on the way to becom­ing rich, resource scarci­ties wouldn’t appear to have bit­ten so far.
“Envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems” and “future prospects” present them­selves in dif­fer­ent ways to dif­fer­ent peo­ple. Some iden­tify envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems with pop­u­la­tion growth, while oth­ers iden­tify them with wrong sorts of eco­nomic growth. There are those who see envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems as urban pol­lu­tion in emerg­ing economies, while oth­ers view them through the spec­ta­cle of poverty in the world’s poor­est coun­tries. Some allude to “sus­tain­able devel­op­ment” only when con­sid­er­ing eco­nomic devel­op­ment in the global econ­omy, while oth­ers see it in terms of the devel­op­ment prospects of vil­lages in sub-​​Saharan Africa. Each of the visions is cor­rect. We know that what begins as urban pol­lu­tion becomes lay­ers of atmos­pheric brown clouds (ABCs), con­tain­ing black car­bon par­ti­cles and ozone, that annu­ally destroy some 2 mil­lion lives and over 100 mil­lion tons of crops, dis­rupts the Mon­soon cir­cu­la­tion and con­tribute to the melt­ing of arc­tic ice and the Himalayan snow. There is no sin­gle envi­ron­men­tal prob­lem, there is a large col­lec­tion of inter­re­lated prob­lems. Some are pre­sent­ing them­selves today, while oth­ers are threats to the future. Although growth in indus­trial and agri­cul­tural pol­lu­tants has accom­pa­nied eco­nomic devel­op­ment, nei­ther pre­ven­tive nor cura­tive mea­sures have kept pace with their pro­duc­tion in indus­tri­al­ized coun­tries. That neglect is now promi­nent in the rapidly grow­ing regions in Brazil, Rus­sia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS). More­over, the scale of the human enter­prise has so stretched the capa­bil­i­ties of ecosys­tems, that Human­ity is today Earth’s dom­i­nant species. Dur­ing the 20th cen­tury world pop­u­la­tion grew by a fac­tor of four (to more than 6 bil­lion) and world out­put by 14, indus­trial out­put increased by a mul­ti­ple of 40 and the use of energy by 16, methane-​​producing cat­tle pop­u­la­tion grew in pace with human pop­u­la­tion, fish catch increased by a mul­ti­ple of 35, and car­bon and sul­fur diox­ide emis­sions by more than 10. It is not with­out cause that our cur­rent era has been named the Anthro­pocene.
On the other hand, eco­nomic growth has brought with it improve­ments in the qual­ity of a num­ber of envi­ron­men­tal resources. The large-​​scale avail­abil­ity of potable water and the increased pro­tec­tion of human pop­u­la­tions against both water– and air-​​borne dis­eases in advanced indus­trial coun­tries have come allied to the eco­nomic growth those coun­tries have enjoyed over the past 200 years. Increases in sci­en­tific knowl­edge, invest­ment in pub­lic infra­struc­ture, and uni­ver­sal edu­ca­tion in advanced indus­trial coun­tries have meant that cit­i­zens there have far greater knowl­edge of envi­ron­men­tal haz­ards than their coun­ter­parts in poor regions. They also have resources to avoid them.
Many peo­ple are con­vinced that sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal advances, the accu­mu­la­tion of repro­ducible cap­i­tal, growth in human cap­i­tal, and improve­ments in the economy’s insti­tu­tions can over­come diminu­tions in nat­ural cap­i­tal. Oth­er­wise it is hard to explain why so much of the social sci­ences in the 20th cen­tury has been detached from the envi­ron­men­tal sci­ences. Nature is all too often seen as a back­drop from which resources and ser­vices can be drawn in iso­la­tion. Macro­eco­nomic fore­casts rou­tinely exclude nat­ural cap­i­tal. Account­ing for Nature, if it comes into the cal­cu­lus at all, is usu­ally an after­thought. The rhetoric has been so suc­cess­ful, that if some­one exclaims, “Eco­nomic growth!”, one does not need to ask, “Growth in what?” – we all know they mean growth in gross domes­tic prod­uct (GDP). The rogue word in GDP is “gross”. GDP, being the mar­ket value of all final goods and ser­vices, ignores the degra­da­tion of nat­ural cap­i­tal. If fish har­vests rise, GDP increases even if the stock declines. If log­ging inten­si­fies, GDP increases even if the forests are denuded. And so on. The moral is sig­nif­i­cant though banal: GDP is imper­vi­ous to Nature’s con­straints. There should be no ques­tion that Human­ity needs urgently to redi­rect our rela­tion­ship with Nature so as to pro­mote a sus­tain­able pat­tern of eco­nomic and social development.

A Pro­posal
Rio+20 Sum­mit on bio­di­ver­sity preser­va­tion was con­vened to pro­vide a res­o­lu­tion to the prob­lems Human­ity faces in our inter­changes with Nature. In prac­ti­cal terms though, it is widely acknowl­edged to have been a fail­ure.
Look­ing through its pro­gramme it is hard to detect an over­ar­ch­ing intel­lec­tual frame­work that was used to iden­tify Nature’s con­straints. The lacuna was inevitable. There was no col­lec­tive endeav­our among nat­ural and social sci­en­tists. That is why we are propos­ing a joint PAS-​​PASS work­shop on Sus­tain­able Human­ity, Sus­tain­able Nature.
Our idea is not to cat­a­logue envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems. We pro­pose instead to view Humanity’s inter­changes with Nature through a triplet of fun­da­men­tal, but inter-​​related Human needs – FoodHealth, and Energy – and ask our respec­tive Acad­e­mies to work together to invite experts from the nat­ural and the social sci­ences to speak of the var­i­ous path­ways that both serve those needs and reveal con­straints on Nature’s abil­ity to meet them.

P.S. Das­guptaV. RamanathanR. Min­nerath


Werner Arber
Mar­garet S. Archer
Scott Bar­rett
Anto­nio Bat­tro
Enrico Berti
Joachim von Braun
Edith Brown Weiss
Yves Cop­pens
Paul J. Crutzen
Gretchen Daily
Partha S. Das­gupta
Pier­paolo Donati
Gérard-​​François Dumont
Mary Ann Glen­don
Juan Grabois
Daniel Kam­men
Charles Ken­nel
Nancy Knowl­ton
Anil Kulka­rni
Yuan Tse Lee
Pierre Léna
Juan J. Llach
Jane Lubchenco
Karl-​​Goran Maler

Mar­cia McNutt
Roland Min­nerath
Wal­ter Munk
Naomi Oreskes
Jan­ice E. Perl­man
Charles Per­rings
V. Ramanathan
Peter Raven
Mar­tin Rees
Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Mara­di­aga
Jef­frey Sachs
Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo
Her­bert Scham­beck
Hans Joachim Schellnhu­ber
Robert Scholes
Achim Steiner
Joseph Stiglitz
Wil­frido Vil­la­corta
Jeff Vin­cent
Peter Wad­hams
Ste­fano Zamagni

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