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November 10, 2011 / garrettjohnson

“Our Common Future” revisted

In 1987, the UN General Assembly assigned the World Commission on Environment and Development to come up with “aspirational goals for the world community” to promote sustainability and alleviate third-world poverty.  The resulting report, “From One Earth to One World,” was the result of years of political research and deliberation among the most experienced policy-makers and learned experts of the world.  The Commission recognized that development and sustainability are intertwined, and that international coordination, democratic decision-making, and widespread education will help to mobilize the world population to pursue these goals.  The report also realizes that technology in the last century has been growing at an alarming rate, and as a result the human impact on ecosystems, climate, and natural resources is virtually undeniable.  All nations, rich and poor both in terms of money and resources, were called on to be involved in the effort.  The report called for “a vast campaign of education, debate, and public participation” and created a sense of urgency: “We are unanimous in our conviction that the security, well-being, and very survival of the planet depend on such changes, now.”

That report was issued almost a quarter of a century ago.  In my lifetime, I cannot say I have noticed much progress toward global sustainability.  Sure, the United States has great National Parks and the European Union requires applicant nations to meet environmental requirements.  But Africa continues to suffer from environmental degradation and struggles to develop under continual global pressure.  Deforestation in South America shows few signs of slowing down and China is eager to exploit Tibet’s natural resources as part of its “Go West” policy.  The United States, still heavily involved in the Middle East, is nurturing its insatiable addiction to oil.  Although we avoided a major nuclear war a couple decades back, the last time I checked, the world is still a mess.  Are we making any real progress here?

The report stressed that “sustainable global development requires that those who are more affluent adopt life-styles within the planet’s ecological means.”  Every day I lament in the fact that many wealthy Americans are failing to recognize the dire global situation.  Or perhaps they simply block it out, ignoring the world’s biggest problems to focus on their own.  Here at the University of Michigan, one of the best and wealthiest educational institutions in the world, brilliant students are learning how to maximize profits, fill a corporate role, and make the big bucks, rather than find a way to solve the core issues of the day.  But that’s what society tells them to do- pursue the so-called American Dream.

The problems we face are deeply ingrained in social consciousness.  In fact, the system itself prevents people from thinking about what really matters.  While our politicians sling mud at each other and struggle to even keep our government operational, American citizens are absorbing the propaganda to buy new things and follow that new reality TV series about rich people.  As far as I can tell, the 1987 report hasn’t had much of an effect- at least on a decent percentage of the richest, most educated, and most capable citizens of the world community.  But what needs to be done before its too late?

Leopold reminds us that “no important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions.”  Those aren’t things that change overnight.  Knocking sense into the negligent populous seems to be an impossible task.  I think one way to tackle this issue is through comprehensive education reform.  While I remember learning long division in third grade, I can’t say I knew anything about the conservation movement until much later in my education.  If environmental studies, sustainability, and global ethics were taught from a young age, perhaps the next generation of Americans would have a different set of values that might then be applied to “the principles and operations of political and economic structures.”  Or not.  Would a generation of globally and environmentally conscious Americans even be able or willing to incite some real change of consciousness or political motivation?  That’s just a thought… does anyone have any other ideas?

I can find solace, however, in the fact that the Commission “found grounds for hope”- hope that cooperation and new economic growth can make sustainable development a reality.  All is not lost just yet.  We’ve already spent 25 years running in circles.  The clock’s ticking…

Garrett Johnson


Leave a Comment
  1. harshjhav / Nov 10 2011 7:54 am

    What do you propose be a potential solution to some of the problems you have mentioned such as American dependence on foreign oil or Chinese exploitation of natural resources? I agree that there has not been a major milestone achievement or change in our consumption patterns towards a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle. But the question becomes, even though we are running around in circles for 25 years, can we come out of it? I think it will be extremely difficult given the complex structure of the system and society. For example, efforts to reduce foreign oil consumption will be bogged down in Congress by powerful lobbyists and individuals who have made their fortune in the oil industry. Unless we change the mindset, which has be engraved in our minds since a young age of “learning how to maximize profits, fill a corporate role, and make the big bucks,” we will still be running around in circles. We need to not change the system, but adapt it so our future problems can be addresses. How do we do this? Frankly, I am not sure but educational reform is a starting point.

  2. mkdiliberti2319 / Nov 13 2011 2:33 am

    I think that you really zeroed in on the fact that in order to be successful in combating our many environmental problems, it requires educated citizens. However, I do remember learning about the importance of preserving the environment as early as elementary school. Furthermore, I believe that the majority of citizens at the very minimum know simple ‘green’ practices to live a more environmentally friendly existence. Yes, I think that education is a confounding variable, but it’s more of a problem of getting citizens to take the initiative to implement these practices that they have learned. Besides a higher water and/or energy bill, there is virtually no accountability in living the practices that one is taught. Otherwise, one can waste as much as desired as long as one can pay for it.

    Therefore, I believe that it requires institutions – governments, interest groups, and local leaders – to cultivate the image that it is socially unacceptable to live a life that is not (at least) reasonably environmentally friendly. This requires people in both powerful and visible roles to begin a shift in attitudes. People in first world nations in particular live extremely wasteful lives because there is strength in numbers. One does not feel guilty about leaving their Christmas lights on 14 hours per day, because their neighbors do the same. Furthermore, when the government is not setting a good example, there is no incentive for the average person to care.

    So yes, I agree with your argument that in our lifetime there has been a disappointing attempt to combat the climate crisis. But it is not just a problem of education, but about putting education to use and creating an environment in which the social stigma of living wastefully is devastating to one’s reputation.

  3. klasingr406 / Nov 15 2011 2:02 am

    I couldn’t agree more with you in this post, I actually wrote one very similar. We are bombarded constantly with encouragements to live beyond our means, and beyond the means of the Earth. While it is saddening that little progress has been made in our lifetimes, I really believe that there won’t be much of a choice in our future. Sustainability implies that what we are doing now is unsustainable, meaning it cannot be sustained. At some point, there will be no choice but to realize that we will run out of some resource (whichever is drained first), and this will be met with blackouts, water/gasoline rationing, increasing food shortages, etc. I think that you’re right also that what needs to be done is not solely political reforms, but a change in consciousness. Especially in the US it is hard not to live an over-consumptive lifestyle, I don’t think people realize the major, major changes that will need to be made to our way of life and our economy as a whole due to the depletion of the resources which fuel it.

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