One earth -- but whose future?

ONE EARTH ONE FUTURE - OUR CHANGING GLOBAL ENVIRONMENT Cheryl Simon Silver with Ruth S DeFries Publisher: Allied East-West Press, New Delhi Price: Rs 59

By Kishore Saint
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

FOR SOME publications, it is more interesting and instructive to review the context rather than the content. In the case of One Earth One Future-Our Changing Global Environment, the content is by now common knowledge. Based on the discussions and presentations at the "forum on global change and our common future", organised in May 1989 by the US National Academy of Sciences, the bulk of the book consists of scientific evidence regarding various facets of environmental change, such as global warming, ozone layer depletion, deforestation, extinction of species and acid deposition.

The issues are presented with great clarity and lucidity for the lay reader. An attempt is also made to derive "a new science of the earth" by studying interactions of different systems in the course of the earth's geological and biological evolution and human history.

These rather preliminary explorations convey an impression of a highly self-confident scientific-academic establishment, waking up belatedly to the damages inflicted by the great industrial enterprises that it had spawned and sanctified. The jolt seems to have been provided by Our Common Futre, the report of the Brundtland commission.

Of course, this was not the first warning of its kind. Throughout the last three decades, a galaxy of scientists, activists, economists and agencies from Rachel Carson to the Club of Rome, and from Paul Erhlich to Barbara Ward, sounded similar alarms, which were all consistently underplayed or ignored.

Meanwhile, evidence has continued to accumulate about the threatening increase of greenhouse gases and ozone depleting chemicals in the atmosphere and the simultaneous decrease in the forest cover. The bold recognition and highlighting of this objective reality by the Brundtland commission report in 1987 seems to have provided the impetus for the presidents of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine undertaing in 1988 to prepare a white paper for the US President-elect on global environment change.

Three principal courses of action were suggested in the white paper: First, global environmental change should be highlighted more prominently in the policy agenda of USA; second, a focal point should be established to link scientific understanding and policy options; and, third, specific action is needed on energy conservation, fuel alteratives, reduction of emission of ozone-destroying chemicals, curbing tropical deforestation and gaining better understanding of the environmental change process.

One is struck by the similarity in the issues raised here and the concerns debated at the Rio Earth Summit and cannot help but surmise that this report provided the conceptual and political framework of UNCED's purpose and agenda. It seems clear that notwithstanding the lengthy prepcoms, the key issues for UNCED were unilaterally defined by the scientific establishment of the North, specifically USA, and from its own perspective. The South, unprepared and undefined in its position and unmindful of its ecological potential and cultural genius, became a mere respondant and contender for more aid.

In fairness it has to be said that the report recognises the limitations of scientific perspective based on tenuous evidence and concedes that there are wider political, ethical, cultural and psychological aspects that shape the choices and decisions of the modern societies. Unfortunately, the environment development discourse has not been able to include these dimensions. Perhaps this is a task for the 1990s.

Kishore Saint is a Udaipur-based environmental activist.

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