visser_logo_small.gif (1783 bytes)I. The Peril and the Challenge
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Chapter I, Section headings:

dot.gif (101 bytes) A new situation dot.gif (101 bytes) Historical roots of the situation
dot.gif (101 bytes) The current emphasis on "sustainable development" dot.gif (101 bytes) The need for comprehensive re-evaluation
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Defining sustainability

dot.gif (101 bytes) Interdisciplinary listening and questioning
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The need for new models of development

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Conflict and creative tension

dot.gif (101 bytes) The agenda for change


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A new situation

In this momentous time in human history and in the wider history of planet earth itself, amid the great diversity of human societies, needs, and ideologies, two tendencies of global proportions can be observed: on one hand, spectacular advances in scientific technology, medicine, and communications have opened immense possibilities for enriching the quality of human life; on the other, there is a growing consensus that the dominant global economic system is impoverishing vast numbers of people. At the same time, this system is causing drastic depletion of resources, massive pollution of the air, the water and the soils, and the destruction of other living creatures throughout the world. Through the depletion of the ozone layer, extensive soil erosion, the extinction of species and global warming, current economic patterns threaten the regenerative and assimilative capacity of the biosphere.

The end of the Cold War reduced the greatest perceived risk to survival, that of nuclear war, and brought hope to many people. Freed from preoccupation with this ideological struggle, they have time and energy for fresh thought and action on the future of humankind. But if they look to the industrial economies of the North Atlantic as models for the rest of the world, they soon see that these societies are disturbed by deep discontents. They may also recognize that these systems of production and consumption cannot be generalized for the five and a half billion people who inhabit the globe.

The current emphasis on "sustainable development"

These insights have emerged during a journey of discovery that has been underway in different quarters for the past few decades. The trenchant critique of the present world order -- and disorder -- comes from the combined wisdom of scientists, economists, political leaders, and people from grassroots organizations and churches sharing their knowledge and diverse experiences.

The World Council of Churches addressed these concerns at its First Assembly in 1948, calling for a "responsible society" in an international context. In the 1960s, with increased membership from the "Third World" (or "Two-Thirds World"), it championed a "just and participatory society." In the 1970s, heeding a heightened ecological awareness, it expanded the term to "a just, participatory and sustainable society" (1974 WCC conference, Bucharest: "Science and Technology for Human Development, The Ambiguous Future -- The Christian Hope").

The ecumenical conciliar process on justice, peace and integrity of creation, which emerged in the 1980s, builds on this legacy and alerts Christians to the fact that, while working to alleviate dehumanizing poverty and to promote human rights and justice, Christians are also called to protect the integrity of God's creation.

The United Nations was also recognizing the issue. In 1972 it convened a Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. From 1983 to 1987 the UN-appointed World Commission on Environment and Development, the Brundtland Commission, searched for ways to both promote development and protect the environment. Its report, Our Common Future, published in 1987, thrust the term "sustainable development" into public discourse. The widespread coverage of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), helped make sustainable development a buzz word in political, developmental and environmental circles.

Defining sustainability

The definition of this term is elusive. Indeed, its very vagueness has lent it popularity. Some take it to mean that old-fashioned economic growth, qualified by a few environmental cautions, can continue. Others understand it to require a radical redirection of the world's economic processes. Still others, observing the tension between economic growth and ecological sustainability, see it as a contradiction in concepts.

In the understanding of this consultation, a sustainable society leaves the world as rich in resources and opportunities as was the world inherited from the past. This means that renewable resources are consumed no faster than they can be renewed, that nonrenewable resources are consumed no faster than renewable substitutes can be found, that wastes are discharged at a rate no greater than they can be processed by nature or human devices. In its richer meanings, sustainability is more than survival. It includes some appreciation of nature in its own right -- of lakes and mountains, flowers and animals not strictly instrumentalities for human exploitation.

The present global mosaic of economies is not sustainable. However, the abundance of inherited resources still provides an unknown amount of time to alter the current pattern. Beginning corrective processes now may forestall the disastrous crash that is otherwise likely. Local catastrophes are already taking place in areas where people now starve or suffer as a consequence of deforestation, soil erosion, desertification and contamination of food or water supplies.

The need for new models of development

Although infinite quantitative growth is impossible in a finite system -- a virtual axiom -- sustainable development is still possible. It will require continued quantitative growth in production of food and other necessities in some parts of the world. But for most of the world, qualitative improvement must replace quantitative growth. One example is the rapid development of information and communication systems, still incredible in the recent past, at modest costs in raw materials, energy, and wastes. Although human imagination and intelligence can redirect technology to enhance life, a transformation of values is also necessary. The words of Charles Birch at the Nairobi Assembly of the World Council of Churches (1975) bear repeating:

"The rich must live more simply that the poor may simply live."  
[N.B. Charles Birch. "Creation, Technology and Human Survival: Called to Replenish the Earth." The Ecumenical Review, XXVIII, January 1976, page 66.]

The change demands a major shift in patterns of production and consumption, especially among the wealthy nations. The world situation calls into question the dominant "development" model in three ways.

  1. Economically it is unsustainable. The good life, or development as commonly understood in the west, cannot be sustained by the earth and cannot be extended to the five and a half billion people alive today, much less to the 10 billion who will inhabit the planet within four or five decades. Imagine Beijing or Calcutta with the number of cars per capita of the United States!

  2. Morally it is unjust. The poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer, as is well documented in UNDP's 1992 Human Development Report. In 1960 the richest 20 percent of the world's population had incomes 30 times those of the poorest 20 percent. By 1990 the figure had increased to 60 times.  [N.B.  Human Development Report 1992. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Page 35. ]

  3. Spiritually it is debilitating. Alienation and frustration are common in consumption- sated societies. Hard experience teaches many that life is more than food and raiment, more than earthly treasures.

One consequence of the present international order is the burden of external debt that is crippling many countries. Some nations must export products, sorely needed at home, to acquire the foreign exchange required to pay or service their debts. The combination of such external (re)payments and internal structural adjustment programs, worked out by international agencies and implemented by governments, may preclude nations from meeting the basic needs of people for food, clothing, shelter, health services, and education. They also exacerbate environmental degradation.

Injustice, exclusion, and environmental debasement is also evident in global trading relationships, especially between the industrialized powers and the developing countries. Political and economic strength is often misused at various levels in society, from the local to the global. Women, marginalized groups, today's children, their unborn children, and nature itself are vulnerable. The armaments industry has skewed northern economies and radically deformed many economies in the south. The violence unleashed against the weak and defenceless in many parts of the world is linked to the misuse of power. Finally, economic trends over this century, which have at times glorified individualism and, at others, glorified collectivism, have undermined and torn apart stable, supportive human communities.

The idea of a just, sustainable society provides the basis for a critique of all systems and regnant ideologies. It also calls for imaginative, yet rigorous explorations of new possibilities.

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