Sustainable Development, a Pseudo-Romantic Myth Lost in a Materialist Civilisation[1]

Let’s start from some findings. A recent report of the European Environment Agency2 estimates that by 2010, the EU’s economy will have grown by 45% over the 1990 levels. It is estimated, according to the mentioned report, that this is likely to erode gains from environmental policy initiatives. At first glance, the failure of the environmental policy (not only anticipated but mostly actual, too — see below) could be explained by detail desertions, possibly theoretical and/or pertaining to implementation. My opinion is that the “desertions” are basic, unavoidable and generated by the very incompatibility of the concept of “sustainable development” with the life-patterns of human beings.

High Costs, Certain Failure
Despite some achievements, after more that 30 years of EU regulations, Europe’s environment, taken as a whole, is now getting worse2. In this respect, the mentioned report, drawn up at the century’s turn, is highly troublesome. Most of the targets the EU set itself in its Fifths Environment Action Programme have been breached. But if the picture looks now gloomy, the prospects for the first decade of 21st century are no rosier. Thus, it is predicted that: * absent additional measures, greenhouse gas emissions will rise by 6% from 1990 to 20104; * emissions of hazardous substances, especially for mercury, cadmium and copper, will continue to rise significantly; * despite an increase in recycling, the EU will generate more and more waste; * a severe threat will persist to Europe’s biodiversity as more roads are built and urban sprawl continues unabated.5
As for harmful ozone in the lower atmosphere, the EU Commission has advanced a limit matching that of the World Health Organisation. However, industry demurred quickly on this point, stating that this limit would add 7.5 billion to the bill of 58 billion euro for the measures the UE has taken before. We could foresee without any risk of mistake that the international organisms’ restrictive measures would be challenged more and more vehemently as more sectors will enter the sight of the regulating organisms. The examples of the Greening Earth Society and the Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries, discussed below, are enlightening.

Opposing Interests, Equally Certain Failure
Even before the UN Meeting on climate changes in Kyoto (December 1997), the American Senate warned, through the Byrd-Hagel Resolution, that no protocol will be ratified without laying down requirements addressed to the Third World regarding its significant participation to the limitations set up for the greenhouse gas emissions. Mention should be made that the Kyoto Protocol referred to the Framework Convention on Climate Change (New York, 1992). This listed in an annex the countries that committed themselves to put into practice the provisions set up by the Conventions aimed at preventing the danger of devastating climate change as a result of human activities. Developed countries were regarded together with the Central and Eastern European countries; hence, the commitment did not involve the Third World.
But then there is OPEC having a completely different position as compared to the American Senate. OPEC requires proportional contributions to the wealthy nations: “The industrialised countries reached their positions by being able to rely on low-priced oil during most of this century. Developing countries are likewise heavily dependent on secure supplies of oil at reasonable prices. Should restrictions be placed on their development? Oil is best available commercial energy source and offers major advantages over other fuels, in terms of safety and pollution. It may prove difficult to convince nations, particularly those in recession, that full benefit of this energy source should be denied them. Climate change negotiations must reconcile the twin objectives of equity and sustainable development.”6 As for the November 2000 Sixth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP-6), held in The Hague, the conclusion was phrased thus: “Building castles in the air.”7 That is a full failure.

From the “Profit and Ease” Temptation to Ecological “Surrealism”
What can one find in no other place but Germany, a country where the institutional order is perceived as exemplary? Well, 75% of all vehicles are impossible to trace after having been removed from the registers. The European Commission believes that these vehicles are being exported, mainly to Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, all the signs are that, in the future, the scale of this “exported” environmental problem will grow and grow, since the number of old vehicles is steadily increasing.8
Let’s stay some more in the field of transportation. The one on rail is “the cleanest and most energy-efficient mass mode of terrestrial transport,” Paul Beeckmans and Patrick Jeanne from the Community of European Railways esteem.9 And they add: “Rail transport caused less than 1% of all CO2 [as compared to 25% for road and air transport], even though the railways’ market share reached 14% in freight and 6% in the passenger sector.” Nevertheless, the latter is preferred by most transportation companies (and is dramatically increasing) as being handier.
Still, important segments of the international industrial community are not confining themselves to disregarding international agreements aimed at stopping the worsening of the environment’s quality as a result of human activities; they are cross counter-attacking. An example is the American organisation Greening Earth Society (GES). They start by denying the reality of the anthropic climate change: “Every effort to predict average increases in global temperatures using mathematical modelling has failed to perform alongside observed changes. Nevertheless, all the scenarios of increase drought, dramatic flooding, more frequent and severe storms, melting ice caps, rising sea level, and the spreads of disease vectors are rooted in these flawed and flux-adjusted models. GES suggests that more attention ought to be paid to the benefits of higher atmospheric CO2 levels of public health and the world food supply, and less attention given to computer model scenarios that appear increasingly unlikely as the models upon which they are based improve.”10
GES “finds” that there is practically no alternative to fossil fuel-based energy production because renewable sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and biomass are too less developed all around the world, and even their use at the small scale where they still exist has negative effects on the environment.
While some stands, such as that on the uncertainty of the computer modelling-based inferences of the global warming of the planet could be partially accepted (until the contrary proof is offered) or at least understood, others seem simply “surrealistic”. Thus, GES goes as far as stating that “enriched atmospheric levels of CO2 undoubtedly stimulate faster growth in trees and plants (…) and will increase global yields of almost every important food crop. It is clear that a world atmosphere enriched by a higher concentration of CO2 yields important benefits to the world environment.”11
The cited association ends its report on a triumphant note: “That would ‘clear the air’ about the benefits of fossil fuel, principally coal, in providing low-cost electricity that will power the economic growth, improve the public health, protect the environment, and provide sustainable development in every nation.”12(!)
Who is hiding behind GES we can find from the organisation’s Web site: beside a series of American scientific personalities, “pushed in front,” stands the real owner: Western Fuel Association in partnership with the National Mining Association! One must admit that organisations having such a profile have all reasons to try to persuade the international community that the atmospheric carbon dioxide is a real manna for humankind. GES doesn’t say a word about the other substances, most of them carcinogen, which result not only directly, through burning fossil fuels, but also indirectly, for instance through plastics, made of oil, a fossil fuel, too.

Welfare Temptation and “Ecological Carelessness”
William McDonough remarks that “consumers do not buy televisions because they feel a powerful need to bring a box of circuit boards, toxic compounds, and metals purified at great environmental expense into their living rooms. They want information and entertainment. The challenge for business, then, is to maximise the provision of such services while minimising the production of goods. Information and human intelligence then become the source of most economic value — as they already are in software, movies, financial services, and other dynamic sectors.”13
So-called green labelling — sticking “good behaviour certificates” on products less damaging to the environment — has a great vogue within the eco-bureaucracy. However, there is a vicious circle here, says M. Mazijn, the president of the Committee for the European Eco-label. The label’s lack of visibility deters producers from applying for the label and, in turn, the absence of labelled products on the market prevents them from becoming known in the eyes of consumers (as ecological “green” products). Then: a recent study carried out by Antwerp University on the behaviour of the Belgian consumer in relation to green products shows that about one third of them would be ready to take environmental criteria into account when shopping.14 Would be ready, I’d stress, as we know for certain that subjects asked to answer questionnaires often express noble intentions, afterwards not honoured; hence, those who buy eco-labelled products in Belgium are likely to be actually much fewer than one third. Not to mention countries where the population’s awareness is lower.

“Patriotism” Vs. Ecology
The Romanian former Minister of transportation Traian Basescu long clamoured against the building of a bridge over Danube, between Calafat (Romania) and Vidin (Bulgaria), which was required by Bulgaria and Greece. The reason? Romania would have much to lose because of tracks carrying wares on shorter routes over the Romanian territory from East to Europe, resulting in proportionally reduced gains. For the Romanian minister it meant little that the same tracks would pollute the area less, Romania included, thus saving fuel, too. In other words, former minister Basescu deserved being blamed. Still, compared to the US Senate’s obstruction, mentioned above, to the Kyoto protocol, Basescu’s position does not even appear dissonant.
What could then be said about the violent criticism in Bulgarian mass media against Romania, generated by the pressure exerted by European Commission aimed at closing up the Kozlodui atomic power plant, natively Bulgarian (actually of the Chernobyl type, but this is, in the context, less important)? Although the EU said it jeopardised the entire region (and Romania is the first jeopardised), opinion makers in Bulgaria believed they had come to a big finding, namely that important western companies are directly involved in closing up the atomic power plant in order to ease the Romanian power export across the Danube, while this power is produced mostly by the Romanian Cernavoda nuclear power plant, where those companies have big interests.
Let us say that beside these two “national” cases (to which many others could be added), there are other transnational/regional “cases,” much more severe, where the environment and population protection is sacrificed without any restraint for the sake of profit. One can but carefully examine some EU directives. We would (amazingly) find that, for example the Council Directive 86/362/EEC on the Fixing of Maximum Levels for Pesticide Residues in and on Cereals, says in its preamble: “(…) it is not necessary to apply this Directive [observing the provisions regarding the pesticide content limits] to products intended for export to third countries.” In other words, let them become sick.

Human “Accomplishment” Patterns in Conflict with “Sustainable Development”
We live in a finite world and, consequently, resources are also finite and would exhaust “one day”; in time, it will be increasingly harder to prevent the offensive of the waste and hazardous substances. All this and more has already been conjectured. More than once. What is new — as it follows from the above — is that the international environmental strategies started to show visible signs of failure during the last years. Also new is that businesses are now organising and counter-attacking. It is true, the OPEC member states, for instance, could be tempered (for a while, at least), as they have been in the past. Instead, the coming of the industrial world’s “heavies” into the ring is undoubtedly a source of concern.
As a conclusion to the major failures of the European environmental policies, The Sustainable Agenda 2000, the publication already quoted several times, inserts a discreet but extremely important observation for those wishing to see: “(…) environmental actions need to be integrated more closely into economic measures.” (p. 45) As the EU (or UN) organisms could hardly be blamed for carelessness in observing the decisions taken up to now, including the ones on environment protection, and as implementation tools have always had a prevailing economic side, it follows that the closer integration of the environment into economic measures, the lack of which does concern the authors of the cited text, indicates something is eluding control.
Salvador Dali made once a strange assertion (for a non-conformist like him — or maybe nobody is as non-conformist as he wishes to look): travelling by underground is being a loser (rough quotation)! Yet, no matter who the observation comes from, it is right. The car is for the average individual not only a commodity, but also (or mainly) an index of prosperity, of accomplishment.
Let us remember that cars, refrigerators, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, TV sets and so on are always present among the indices of the life standard (or civilisation in its present meaning). Not to mention the GDP per capita and the average income. But everyone who finds himself ranked on a lower position according to the standard of living indices, be him/it a private person or a decision-making organism, reacts in one and the same way: he/it wishes to reach the top.
Terra’s competitors keep comparing themselves to the others: the United States, the European Union (created precisely in order to reach greater competitiveness), Japan, south-eastern Asia, likely China in the not too distant future. One gets power through competition. Existence is inconceivable without competition — both with individuals and communities. Competition has no terminus in a world the values of which are almost exclusively material. And sustainable development conflicts with competition, even in an invisible way. For the time being. The text quoted at the beginning — “economic growth is likely to erode gains from environmental policy initiatives” — is quite telling. Let’s not mystify ourselves: sustainable development entails restrictions on production and economic activities — more and more dramatic and numerous as we are approaching a major environmental crisis. Restrictions in economy (where the idea of stagnation simply does not find its place) entail extra costs, often significant. One of the solutions advanced by the Shell company, which does not acknowledge the Greening Earth Society’s “philosophy” yet, is to counterbalance the CO2 emissions of a thermal power plant located in Europe by planting a forest (which consumes CO2) somewhere in the tropical area. Such a solution, though based on spatial unbalance, slightly ridiculous, is for now an achievement the Shell company is proud of. But planting forests entails expenses (like any other ecological solution) and increases the power costs. However, a time is to be anticipated when Shell, less detached from its present rivals, following the example of the American Senate in pushing the Third World to join the others’ efforts to curtail the greenhouse gas emissions, will pretend from its competitors a loyal competition with comparable ecological costs.
Human “accomplishment” patterns do not end with competition. The appetite for ceremony (and thereby for pomp) is to be added. On the eve of the New Year 2000, Athens’ municipality replaced the traditional huge Christmas tree by a “tree” made up of… bulbs. As if that had not entailed other trees being sacrificed by the acid rain caused by the emissions of power plants working to feed those (thousands of) bulbs! Still, it is not only festivities. How would people accept, when — for most of them — there is no inner shine, to be ever deprived of the great metropolises’ outer/material (and power consuming) sparkling?
We may not eventually forget the travelling people pattern, revealing the investigating nature of the average individual, but equally the ambition of the image of a successful person. And here we come to tourism. A service like anyone else, one could say. However, there are two reasons to attach a special weight to this. First, because tourism, beside power consumption, not negligible at all, entails developing an impressive infrastructure. Then, because tourism is the service for which the most dramatic development is expected. Thus, according to the World Tourism Organisation, an increase from the current figure of 600m people making tourism to about 1.6bn by the year 2020 is to be expected.15 And while in the day-by-day life one could hope some restrictive measures will be accepted, such as those advanced by the world environment protection organisations (e.g., giving up individual transportation means for public ones — though this is a mere wish for the time being), instead it is hard to believe the tourism businesses would be ready to limit their offer for the sake of sparing the environment.

A (Borrowed) Anecdote and a Conclusion
Once upon a time, a big clan of green rose bugs was living on the branches of a rose bush. They found themselves there in a spring. They ate leafs and of course had plenty. They had offspring every three days and their number kept growing. The old were dying, the young were taking their places. Every three days. The spring passed, then the summer. Yet, one day a rumour troubled their peace. Then they went and stood before the headbug, a very old green bug. “Listen, they said, there is a rumour. Autumn is going to come, they say. Leaves are going to fall. What are we going to eat then? Are we going to starve?” “Are you stupid?” the headbug grew angry. “Autumn to come! Leaves to fall! Who on earth ever heard of such rubbish? That will never happen! Never! ’Cause, as you know very well, we are living here for generations and none of us ever saw what you called autumn!”


The future world — if there is one (and we must, optimistically, admit there is one) — will look surely completely different from that one may anticipate by (more or less linear) extrapolation based on the data at hand. One thing is certain: “more closely integrated environment into economic measures” is not enough. There is a need for a new value system to survive. But how this new system will be built no one can see now. And probably long time from now on.

1. Article published, in Romanian, in the România liberă newspaper, on 4 March 2000
2. The Sustainable Development Agenda 2000, Campden Publishing Ltd., 1999, p. 45
3. Ibidem
4. The European Commission’s commitment had been to reduce by 8% the emissions of these substances as compared to the reference (1990) level by 2008-2012; the commitment regarded 39 developed countries and countries in transition.
5. Op. cit., p. 45
6. Op. cit., p. 122
7. Earth Negotiations Bulletin, Vol. 12, No. 163, 27 November 2000
8. Newsletter from Ritt Bjerregaard, the EU’s Commissioner for the Environment, Brussels, June 1999
9. The Sustainable Agenda 2000, p. 153
10. Op. cit., p. 147
11. Ibidem. See also The CO2 Issue, a publication of the Greening Earth Society, 1999.
12. Ibidem
13. Lester Brown, State of the World 1999, W.W. Norton & comp., New York-London, 1999, p. 180
14. The Daisy News — The European Eco-label Newsletter, April 1999
15. The Sustainable Agenda 2000, p. 57

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