“Take hold of the future or the future will take hold of you” Patrick Dixon – Futurwise
World Population Day was on 11 July. The day seeks to focus attention on the urgency and importance of population issues. It was established by the then-Governing Council of the United Nations Development Programme in 1989, an outgrowth of the interest generated by the Day of Five Billion, which was observed on 11 July 1987. The theme for 2018 is ‘Family Planning is a Human Right’.
According to the United Nations estimates there are 7.3 billion people alive today and that means that they need to be fed, clothed, kept warm and ideally, nurtured and educated. It means there 7.3 billion individuals who, while busy consuming resources, are also producing vast quantities of waste. The United Nations also estimates that the world population will reach 9.2 billion by 2050.
There is an underlying fear that as our population increases the health of our environment will decrease. The impact of so many people on the planet has resulted in some scientists coining a new term to describe our time—the Anthropocene epoch. Unlike previous geological epochs, where various geological and climate processes defined the time periods, the proposed Anthropocene period is named for the dominant influence humans and their activities are having on the environment.
Equally, as the world population continues to grow, the limits of essential global resources such as potable water, fertile land, forests and fisheries are becoming more obvious. Added to this equation is the issue of mass consumerism. It may be fine to participate in consumer culture and to value material possessions, but in excess, it is harming both the planet and our emotional wellbeing. The environmental impact of uncontrolled consumption is huge. The mass production of goods, many of them unnecessary for a comfortable life, is using large amounts of energy, creating excess pollution, and generating huge amounts of waste.
Global warming has led to an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events and disasters. The rise in global temperature is primarily due to an increase in greenhouse gases brought about by human activity. Despite the call by the United Nations to industrialized nations to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, we have seen a continued increase in these emissions. If this goes on, our planet will continue to undergo destruction, jeopardizing the lives of all creatures, including human beings.
Indeed we are on a pathway to destroying the very planet that sustains us and the future implications of this process are dire. Not only are we consuming non-renewable natural resources increasingly rapidly, but we are discharging toxic solids, liquids and gases to an increasingly polluted environment. Simultaneously climate change is knocking at our doors and its presence is far-reaching and the availability of water, food and energy will be the most precious resources important for our continuity of civilization.
Generally, the popular press regales us daily about the “important” news of politics, economics, health, poverty, immigration, wars and other symptoms of overpopulation, but there are few articles relating current trends to the future of humans and earth.
Our educational institutions likewise cover the history of everything, but rarely do they discuss the world in which our descendants will live. We still believe the economists who suggest that unending ‘growth’ will solve our problems, which could not be further from the truth. Nothing can grow forever, including our economies.
Similarly, most higher education graduates receive little teaching regarding the future. This is sad, because, after all, the education of young people should be about the world in which they will live?
As a responsible generation of adults, we should be discussing the future big issues facing our children’s world. The quality of life for the world’s children in 2050 depends on our decisions today. The need for change in human development for them to lead happy lives has been debated for decades.
The sustainability discourse started in the 1970s, and the 1992 UN Conference on the Environment and Development recognised intergenerational equity as central for policymaking that safeguards the future. This principle is now found in the constitutions of many countries. Its implementation through binding policy-making, however, is rare.
One of the reasons for this may be the structural short-term nature of representative democracies. The World Commission on Environment and Development notes, “We borrow environmental capital from future generations with no intention or prospect of repaying. . . . We act as we do because we can get away with it: future generations do not vote; they have no political or financial power; they cannot challenge our decisions.”
Recently much has been written on the issue of plastics and long-lived pollution and the poor state of our oceans. The critical question that arises is “To what extent have we violated the rights of future generations?” If one takes into consideration the legacy of plastics and other non-biodegradable waste, it would seem that our production systems will need to be judged against the standard of whether they send problems into the future.
We have to admit that many of the material comforts that we enjoy in our daily lives come at the expense of environmental damage and pollution. As the human population grows, the demand for resources will become greater, leading to even more pollution and environmental damage. If we continue to pursue our current lifestyle of consumption, the Earth’s resources will be depleted within a few decades.
We are all aware that globally climate change, environmental destruction, financial crises, and the widening gap between rich and poor are spreading insecurity and fear. Common sense suggests that these challenges are too big for one country to handle alone and too structural in nature to ignore where our expertise needs an update.
We are the first generation whose decisions will determine for good or ill the future of our great grandchildren’s life on this planet, and we seem stuck in a way of thinking that is obsolete in a globalised world of growing populations. We remain mired in institutional stalemates that inhibit farsighted action, and are trapped by the fear of losing individual material wealth, a fear that jeopardises any spirit of common action.
We have been reminded constantly about this moral dilemma which clearly indicates that the trajectory of human development needs to change. As far back as 1987, a United Nations Report called for a world political transformation based on the concept of sustainable development, so that the parallel problems of environmental degradation and development could be addressed in an integrated way.
The report’s analysis and recommendations were clear: “We have tried to show how human survival and well-being could depend on success in elevating sustainable development to a global ethic.” Sustainable development was defined as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
In a subsequent report of 1992 the majority of the world’s countries recognised that, although present generations can and do steward the earth’s resources to further their own development needs, they should not do this in a way that will foreclose the needs or rights of future generations. Representatives of these countries pledged that they needed to take into account the long-term impact of global activities, sustaining the earth’s resource base and the global environment for the benefit of those who will come after them.
Yet, more than two decades later, as adults, we have to admit failure in implementing effective policy. Targets for climate change mitigation, biodiversity, ocean protection, poverty eradication, health, and social equity are continuously missed -this, even despite better scientific measures telling us that the pressure to act is increasing tremendously.
It is time to cut through the alienating technocratic verbiage around sustainability and think about our decisions from the point of view of our great-grandchildren in 2050 and beyond. It is their quality of life that should be the benchmark when debating environmental protection, youth unemployment, sustainable pension systems, the level of public debt, and so on.
Giving our present generation of youth the right to speak up for future interests grants a voice in decision making to everyone whose well-being and rights will be affected. Such ‘guardians’ would function as temporal checks and balances in the structural short-term orientation of our democratic institutions.
They, for example, could be directly approachable by civil society so that concerns about long-term impacts of political decisions would be filtered straight into the system. If such a ‘watchdog’ had a mandate to access all information in all governmental departments, he or she could minimise the risk of policy incoherence, of economic goals trumping resource regulation, instead initiating early cross-issue exchanges and thereby improving policymaking effectiveness.
Keeping our common future in view and analysing how single decisions might support or harm that future can help nurture a new common purpose, thereby enabling our great grandchildren of 2050 to lead happy lives. The future, after all, belongs to them.
By Professor Dhiru Soni, an environmentalist at heart and is the Director of Research and Innovation at Regent Business School.
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