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Why we are not sustainable

Why we are not sustainable


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By Hugo von Bernard and Martha Gorbarán

To ensure sustainable management of ecosystems, personal changes are required, in institutions, in governments, in economic policies, in social factors, personal behavior, in technology and in knowledge. Among the reasons it seems to be that future degrowth is not considered and that humans currently alive prefer that this issue be solved (paid for) by the next generations.


The anthropological approach to the concept of sustainability, including cultural, philosophical, ethical and human nature aspects has been extensively treated in recent decades. The environmentally correct concept is widely used, but sustainability as a whole is not discussed (Bartlett, 1994). The words sustainable and sustainability have been used in so many different senses, including the concept of "sustainable luxury," that they will soon mean nothing (Batlett, 1994; Zencey, 2010).

Possibly, due to the lack of a holistic vision of the economic, environmental and social values ​​that sustainability represents, and despite all the knowledge added to the human wealth, nothing changed (Waltner-Toews et al., 2003). The lack of environmental sustainability is already recognized in historical Mesopotamia, Israel, Lebanon, Greece, Cyprus, Crete, Italy, Sicily, Spain (Hillel, 2001) and continues today. Some simply argue that human action is not sustainable (Meadows et al., 1972; Bartlett, 1994; WDR, 2010).

Therefore, countries that have limited capacity to mitigate environmental changes are those that will bear the greatest effects, since it is unlikely that economic growth will be fast enough, or equitable, to counteract its threats (WDR, 2010).

Each human has innumerable reasons to justify the reason for their unsustainable actions (Louis XV of France (1710 - 1774); Russell, 1939; Huxley, 1960; Hardin, 1968; Meadows et al., 1972; Quiroga Martínez, 2003 ; Schumacher, 1978; Viglizzo, 1999; Camarasa, 2001; Gray 2003; Quirós, 2005; Sain, 2009; Lammers, Stapel & Galinsky, 2009; Janssen et al., 2010; WDR, 2010; Carta de Sao Paulo, 2010; Upton Sinclair). The lack of environmental sustainability is linked to an excessive consumption of goods and services, possibly due to economic and social requirements imposed by the human being, both collectively and individually.

In recent decades, the environmental issue received much more attention than the economic or social issue, possibly as having been overlooked during the 19th century. The environment in this case involves land, water, air, and natural resources as an integral part of the factors of production: land, labor, and capital (Hamrin, 1983).

In general, those who describe environmental damage, mainly city dwellers (Webster, 1997), place these problems outside their immediate sphere of action, are unaware of the problems of other realities and forget that for humans, "man is the measure of all things ", Protagoras (485 - 410 BC). While they worry about clearing the rainforests or hunting whales, they do not see the roofless humans that surround them, they do not plant trees in the streets of their cities, they consume everything they can and they do not show what it is like to live sustainably. Nobody remembers that of "If you want to change the world, change yourself" Mahatma Gandhi 1869 - 1948.

All those who benefit from the economic and social subsidy that environmental degradation generates (consumers, politicians, businessmen and workers) will hardly change their attitude to bequeath a sustainable world to future generations (Joyce, 2010).

The action of each human on the environment can be expressed as an "environmental footprint" (WDR, 2010) and for those who describe the current situation, the human load that the earth can bear was exceeded (Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 1993; Bartlett, 1994 ). The concept of load comes from biology where non-human animals try to consume according to their metabolic weight and production. In the years of droughts or floods there are famines, falls in reproductive rates and / or massive deaths.

Not all humans share the same consumption patterns or leave the same "environmental footprint." Regardless of the countries, there are overconsumers, supporters, and marginals (Max-Neef, 1986). Overconsumers, 20% of the world's population, consume two-thirds of the world's resources. Holders, 60% of the world's population, are the target of all advertising campaigns for their additional consumer capacity. Finally, the marginalized make up the remaining 20%, and they live on $ 1 or 2 a day. If all people consumed as the overconsumers, it would take more than three times the current resources to cover their requirements (three planets like Earth), while if they consumed as the marginal ones, it could even be enough for everyone with what we have.

To mitigate human action on the environment there are different proposals. One of them is to reduce population growth (Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 1993; Bartlett, 1994). It is not accepted in practice and every year the world's environmental burden increases by about 80 million people. The lack of acceptance of birth control may be in the selfish gene that each one possesses (Dawkins, 2000), the lack of enough examples of what it is like to live with fewer children, the fear of who will take care of one in old age or why those who do it do not give up any of the privileges they enjoy (Hardin, 1968).

The chronic hunger of the marginalized, those who live on $ 1 or 2 a day, does not derive from a lack of food production but from poor distribution, a consequence of wars, revolutions, or wrong economic policies (Clark, 1970; Swaminathan, cited by Sorman, 1989). Among the wrong economic policies are the subsidies paid to the agricultural sectors of some countries or the transformation of food into fuel. Subsidies promoted excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides, artificially increased food production, forced overproduction to be exported at dumped prices, and reduced the profitability of agriculture in developing countries (Reid et al., 2005; Leonard, 2010 ). Due to lack of profitability, many producers in developing countries abandoned their farms and migrated to urban centers.


In moments of peace and correct economic policies, the balance between the production and food requirements of the human population is enough for everyone to consume the necessary calories (Swift, 1727; Clark, 1970; Swaminathan, cited by Sorman, 1989). However, the journalistic targeting of hunger by the city population, together with the economic speculation that occurs in the stock exchanges around the world, divert the focus of attention to an alleged lack of product.

If those who govern believe, or say they believe, that the hunger of their fellow citizens is due to the lack of production, the growth of the cultivated area and the intensification of production are promoted (MacNeill, 1989). In this case, the environment subsidizes food and food subsidizes low wages. If those who govern become aware that hunger is due to wars, international or between brothers (revolutions), and / or wrong economic policies, the solution is to avoid these events. Of course, the latter is easier said than done.

The human attitude is particularly curious. In their role as consumers, individuals make a cult of buying at the lowest possible price, denounce the environmental damage caused by others, seek free or almost clean environmental services, and do not want polluting sources near their homes. This is summarized by the acronym NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) in English.

Very few of the humans voluntarily reduce their own negative externalities, those that generate environmental losses such as the excessive use of resources or the non-recycling of waste. In extreme cases, humans send the polluting sections of their companies, or waste of any kind, to countries with poor environmental policies (Leonard, 2010). This reduces the cost of cleaning and environmental contamination in the issuing country.

Neither are positive externalities encouraged by the population and their governments, those that generate environmental improvements such as the implantation of forests, reduction of consumption, recycling of waste, use of public transport, and so on.

Due to all of the above, humans, as producers, find it difficult to include in their costs everything that concerns sustainability.

All this does not prevent countless articles from being written for sustainability, lobbying governments and international organizations, placing para-tariff barriers to protect local entrepreneurs from companies located in other countries that produce with environmental laws. more lax (Sinner, 1998), cheaper land and water or lower wages.

Currently, two measures are being discussed to achieve sustainability "in toto": the willingness to pay and the compensation required.

The first determines how much one would be willing to pay to have a better quality of life and the second, what would be demanded for accepting a worse situation (Ministry of Natural Resources and Human Environment, 1992). In both cases, the final products will become more expensive. The reasons may be: a) carrying out a complete production costing, including direct costs, amortizations and interest on invested capital (Alper, 1993; Mearns, 1997) or b) reduction of supply.

As developed countries have contributed enormously to environmental damage (WDR, 2010), the ruling class of developing countries intends to receive a millionaire annual compensation to develop and protect the environment of their countries (Lomborg, 2010). This is questioned by developed countries under the concept that "it is not convenient for the poor in rich countries to pay the rich in poor countries" for protecting the environment.

The European Union proposed to restrict its emission of Carbon Dioxide Equivalents (CO2) to the 1990 level, before the year 2000.

As this decline is linked to lower economic activity, job cuts, and loss of voter favor, the measures were never implemented. It is about not making the adjustment during the period of government itself or, as the acronym in English NIMTOO ("not in my time of office") points out.

As the goal was not reached in the year 2000, at the Kyoto Summit, its entry into force was postponed until 2012. The leaders of the signatory countries of the original proposal are already part of history and others will have to take charge of she. As in 2012 it will not be environmentally, economically or socially sustainable either, we are already talking about post 2012 or 2020.

At the Copenhagen meeting it was decided that from 2020 onwards, 100 billion dollars will be allocated annually to an international fund for climate change and at the Cancun meeting (2010), to collect 30 billion until 2012 for the same purpose (Diario La Nación , December 12, 2010). It is a fact that, while those who donate this money want to have guarantees that it will be used to combat climate change and not for anything else, those who would benefit from the fund want to have freedom to decide on the national measures in which they will use it.

In case it is ever paid, 2020 is too far away, it remains to be seen if that money reaches those who protect the environment "in situ" or remains in the hands of politicians, researchers, investors, environmental organizations or pressure groups that obtain profits abroad. of the market and thanks to its position before the State (the so-called rent seekers).

Until now, the inhabitants of developed countries who would eventually pay to protect the environment, complain about the existence of rent seekers from developing countries and rural producers from developing countries who do not receive any money to protect it wonder why they are not compensated for the legal limitations that they place on the exploitation of their resources.

In the event that environmental protection was imposed on the population in a compulsive way, by the government's own conviction or by pressure from foreign governments or international organizations, (top-down) without compensation to the population directly involved in it, poverty could increase in developing countries (Ahmed et al., 2009).

If metaphors were used regarding sustainability, an environmentalist would say that this "is the tragedy of the commons" (Hardin, 1968); an economist would denounce that "it is the problem of the free rider" and a biologist would argue that "it is the dilemma of the prisoner" (May, 2010). In any case, none of them would take it for granted.

In conclusion, to ensure sustainable management of ecosystems, personal changes are required, in institutions, in governments, in economic policies, in social factors, personal behavior, technology and knowledge (Reid et al. , 2005). For this, short-term objectives will have to be reconciled with long-term ones.

Unfortunately, these aspects have yet to materialize. Among the reasons seems to be that no member of the political right or left considers future decline (Pardo Silva, 2010) or that humans currently alive prefer that this issue be solved (paid for) by the next generations.

Hugo von Bernard Y Martha Gorbaran, March 2011

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Video: Sustainable community development: from whats wrong to whats strong. Cormac Russell. TEDxExeter (May 2022).


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