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The Challenges of 2015 and Beyond

By Felix Dodds

"God forbid that India should ever take to industrialization after the manner of the west. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom [UK] is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts."  –

Mahatma Gandhi, 1928


More than half a century before anyone had even considered the term ‘sustainable development’, Mahatma Gandhi warned of the dangers facing a rapidly developing world.  Almost eighty years later, the population of India has quadrupled and the U.S. – the world’s greatest over-consumer –has a population of 300 million.  The risks prophesized by Gandhi have started to come true. 


The Brundtland Commission, ’The Commission that Changed the World’, gave us over 20 years ago the concept sustainable development as a political and scientific challenge, and a lens through which all development, social, environmental and economic policies, should be seen.  The 1990s saw the world through a series of UN Conferences and Summits try and produce an agenda on how we all might live sustainably in the 21st century.  They offered hope that we could together address the critical issues that were confronting us at that time. They also identified what might become the problems for the future if we did not take heed. 


The Millennium Development Goals in 2000 were in some way an acceptance of failure to deliver on the larger  and more integrated agenda and represented a return to a more traditional development agenda that had been at the forefront in previous decades. The Summits and Conferences of the 1990s showed what could be achieved in identifying the problems and offering solutions if civil society were involved. The Millennium Development were negotiated by a relatively few people excluding civil society based on the work of the UN Secretary General’s office.


“Thus, in sum, as concerns the international development agenda, the MDGs, regardless of their intrinsic value and importance, have contributed to extending the status quo in North-South development dialogue which has been prevalent for almost three decades now, in further neutralizing any systemic challenges that could arise from the developing countries, in diverting attention from key problems and shrinking and restricting the international development agenda to select issues permitted or favoured by the North.”            

Branislav Gosovic (formerly head of the South Centre secretariat in Geneva)


The approach and vision of Agenda 21 should be infused with what has become an expression of today’s and tomorrow’s concerns: How to build a stable world amidst an increasingly unpredictable future where global, regional and national risks seem to be increasing but are still not an integral part of the agenda. This must be changed. 


The World Summit in September 2005 was the first attempt to address Human, Economic and Environmental Insecurity/Security agenda at the global level. In preparation for the World Summit, the Secretary General prepared a report entitled In Larger Freedom. This outlined an ambitious approach to addressing security issues as well as sustainable development issues but it didn’t integrate them and did not look at the increasing economic security issues that are now more closely linked to this agenda. The recent emergence of drastic increase in energy and food costs has emphasized the need to link and integrate these issues.


The emerging water security issues and the impacts of now becoming an urban world with over 50% of the world living in cities are creating the challenges we now need to face. According to Andrew Simms of the New Economic Foundation, 


“If the whole world wished to consume at the level of the United States – a consumption pattern which has been fuelled, incidentally, by the credit binge which led to the current economic crisis – we would need, conservatively, over five planets like Earth to support them.  But, under the current pattern of unequally distributed benefits from growth, to lift everyone in the world onto a modest $3 per day, would require the resources of around fifteen planets like ours.”

[U.N. Economic and Social Council; May 2008.]  


If the other fourteen planets are not available then it is clear we need a different type of development, one that is sustainable. This was made clear at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Governments recognized “common, but differentiated, responsibilities.”  In other words, that rich countries need to take more of the burden, while poorer  countries do, indeed, have a right to develop – but must do so sustainably. 


Agenda 21 agreed at the Earth Summit the“blueprint for the 21st Century” – was perhaps the most comprehensive and enlightened intergovernmental agreement ever negotiated.  It does try to deal with the linkages between environmental, development and social issues, and it represents precisely the kind of approach needed now.   Climate change provides a critical example of the need for such integration.  Part of the increase of food prices has been caused by the negative impact of growing corn to provide biofuels for energy – a linkage that has been overlooked by policy makers.  This failure illustrates the importance and difficulty of cooperating between sectoral areas and specialties.  It shows why development, environment, trade, and economics must all be incorporated in order to formulate effective policies.   


There is a need for a  new paradigm which combines the threats of global climate change, food security, energy security, water scarcity, population and consumption, health, migration and general security into a single set of issues, namely that of Human, Economic and Environmental Insecurity/Security.  Any discussion on the MDGs and sustainable development is sidelined if it is not looked at within this new paradigm. Every new generation of world leaders need to address the issues around Sustainable Development. None of the G8 world leaders who went to New York in 2000 or Joberg in 2002 will be in power in 2015.


The discussion on Human, Economic and Environmental Insecurity/Security should happen under the set of conferences started by Stockholm framed by Brundtland and filled in by Rio and then Johannesburg as many of the answers lie in the approaches agreed at those conferences: In his quote Gandhi described human beings as behaving like locusts – but he did so in order to encourage humans to turn in a different direction.  We, as a species, no longer have eighty, fifty or even twenty years to take that turn. 


The failure of deliver of the agreements from the Rio and Johannesburg Earth Summits is that we are seeing a converging of the agendas of economics, development, environment and security.  It is time for all individuals to reconsider their attitudes regarding their consumption patterns.  It is time for political parties to be honest about the options the world faces. 


It is time for governments and the U.N. to take action necessary to achieve the Millennium Development Goals as a prerequisite to addressing the larger agenda facing us and to pioneer a development path on which all the world’s billions can survive sustainably on this one planet.  


At this year’s meeting of the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development, environmental photographer Mark Edwards was asked whether he thought there was “intelligent life on Earth?”  


 “I think that is an open question,” he said.  


 “We don’t know yet.”  



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