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Arne Jernelöv and Simon Jernelöv

A clear lodestar or a diffuse aurora?

The concept of sustainable development gained worldwide usage through the Brundtland Report of the World Commission for Environrnent and Development. The purpose of this report was to answer the question of whether the future lodestar for the UN chould be economic development to provide the poor of the world with a basic material standard, or environmental protection, to guarantee the survival of the human race.

With its implication that two apparenthy incompatible goals actually can be united, the term rapidly gained politcal acceptance the world over. Sustainable development was one of the main concepts at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in JuIle 1992, where Agenda 21 was able to draw up as a programme for how sustainable development could be attained. An official view of what the term implies can be found in Principles 3 and 4 of the Rio Declaration, which state:

In the light of this, one might think that it would be a simple matter to answer the question contained in the heading above. It should also be a simple matter to adapt the Rio decisions to national conditions, for example in a future Environmental Code. Words which approximate to sustainable development are also included in the Maastricht Treaty (Article B of the "Common Provision") and in the amended Article 2 of the Treaty of Rome. However, before the concept can become operational a couple of fundamental questions must first be discussed. Simply because the words "sustainable" and "development" have been placed alongside one another, it does not automatically mean that the two have become one.

The need for clarification

The term sustainable development has not actually been defined. It is a philosophical principle which has been descrbed only as a development which makes it possible for today’s generation of mankind to satisfy its needs without making it more difficult f or future generations to satisfy theirs. This is a politcally attractive description, but it provides little foundation for decision as to whether one form of technology or economic programme is compatible with the objectives or not.

The vagueness of the term already gave rise to problems at the regional drafting meetings for the Rio conference, although this very vagueness has probably been essential in order to gain broad political acceptance for the term. In Kampala, Uganda, where the African regional meeting was held in 1989, sustainable development was used as a synonymous and replaceable term for sustainable growth by practically all speakers. It is quite natural that the developing countries consider that they have the right to some of the development that has created our economic prosperity. The problem with this interpretation of the term, however, is that in most cases growth is not sustainable. The world's environ mental problems are also largely created by the classic growth philosophy of the industrialised nations; were the developing nations to follow the same course, it would lead to global environmental collapse. Like the continued development of the industria lised nations, therefore, the development of the poorer nations must take on a much more sustainable form then conventional "growth".

What can continue to grow and what cannot?

Obviously, continued growth in physical terms is incompanble with ecological balance and environmental sustainability. A continued increase of anything - population, the use of energy, sugar production or iron ore extraction - will sooner or later lead t o collapse when the Earth is no longer able to produce more.

When it comes to composite economic concepts like GDP, however the question of ongoing growth becomes somewhat more complicated. The production of goods, measured in volumes, can probably continue to rise if it is the knowledge content of the goods which grows. The same applies to the production of services. Services which consume natural resources, such as transportation, cannot grow continuously without sooner or later coming into conflict with the tolerance of the ecosystem or the capacity of the Earth to supply such resources. On the other hand we can take care of one another, sing opera arias or play football to a practically unlimited extent, and get paid for it, without noticeably disrupting the ecological balance. Since GDP and the economy include al1 these different types of production, ongoing economic growth is conceivable on condition that there is a simulta- neous shift in the content of production towards greater knowledge content in the products and a greater proportion o f services (which do not consume natural resources). GDP growth on a basis that includes items previously excluded (the work of women in the home, for instance) is also conceivable without coming into conflict with the concept of sustainable development.

Time scales and activities

The philosophical implication of the concept of sustainable development is that it should be possible for a given activity to continue for an unlimited period of time. Naturally, this is not the case with any activity if we consider time scales that encompass the very existence of the solar system. This perspective is hardly relevant, however, so what sort of time scales should we consider to be unlimited in practical terms?

It is clear that the time scale must be long in relation to a human lifetime. It is also clear that it must be longer than our normal planning perspectives. However, if it is also to be longer than the time scales involved in the development of civilisati ons and technology in agriculture and mining, we are talking about milennia. If we are also to take biological evolution into account, along with succession in the ecosystem and climatological processes, we are talking about hundreds of millennia. Perhaps a couple of thousand years could serve as an acceptable unlimitation, particularly in northern regions, where we can expect this to take us up to the next ice age.

Another important issue consists of activities. Do we link the question of sustainability, to a geographicallv defined technology or project? This question can be illustrated with a couple of practical examples:

  1. Can traditional clearing and burning, where the farmer cultivates an area for a few years and then moves on, be regarded as sustainable if the farmer's successors return to the site a few centuries later?

  2. Can the collection of guano from bird colonies be considered sustainable if the amount of guano at each site only lasts for ten years and takes a thousand years to regenerate, and there are a hundred sites to collect it from?

  3. Can the extraction of minerals be considered sustainable if the global reserves would last the lifetime of the solar system, but each deposit only lasts a decade?

In the question of sustainability only concerns individual projects - in the form of a given activity in a given geographical area or a given time scale - none of the above projects can be regarded as sustainable. If sustainable development relates to the technology as such, they could be. From a philosophical point of view, one might say that if the area is small enough and the time scale short enough, then no activity is sustainable.

In principle and in practice, the conclusion is that sustainability must be a question of the technology rather than the project in order to have any real meaning. A development or process that is sustainable in a global context is therefore one that can continue impeded for at least a few thousand years. For all the above examples, the practical answer is thus in the affirmitive. One must consider the capacity for natural regeneration when determining whether or not a given development is sustainable. On e must also ensure that the resources are available. A principle of sustainable development based on an assumption of human life without any utilisation of resources is not viable, nor is it politically accepted.

Sustainable development vis a vis the limits of growth

In the early 1970s, a group of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Boston University were commissioned by the Club of Rome to produce a report which was published under the title of Limits to Growth - a book which generated a great deal of interest when it appeared.

One could summarise this book by saying that its point of departure was that the Earth can support only a certain population. It then went on to attempt to estimate the actual figure and to establish the main limking parameters, reaching the conclusion th at the population could not sustainably, be higher than it already was at the time and that it was the food supply and availability of non-rescuable raw materials which were the limiting parameters.

Interest waned rapidly and the report even fell into disrepute when the green revolution produced hi-yield varieties of rice and wheat which raised the output per hectare even in developing countries, to levels previously only dreamed of. (The authors hav e since published their own review of the book, in which they maintain that their conclusions were still basically correct.)

Now that the concept of sustainable development has become a platform for international agreements in Rio and for the national post-Rio environmental work in a number of countries. including Sweden, there is every reason to try to clarify the diverence be tween the terms "the limits of growth" and "sustainable development". This difference can most simply be expressed by saying that the approach adopted by the Club of Rome was static while that of the Brundtland Commission is dynamic. What are the implicat ions of this?

Let us take a historical example: how many people could dive on bronze-age technology, and for how long? (On the basis of modern know-how and estimates of high-grade surface deposits of copper and tin, we are in a fairly good position to answer this question.) A plausble answer would be: a few million people for a few thousand years. Bronze-age technology was thus not sustainable - but bronze-age development was!

The build-up of material resources, such as manpower and firewood, and the bronze-age development of metallurgical know-how, made the leap into the iron age possible. This gave access to a much broader base of raw materials. This development process can b e likened to stepping from one tuft of grass to another in a marsh, having to find a new tuft before the present one starts to sink.

Obviously, there are many other historical examples of cultures that disappeared when the natural resources upon which their technologies were based had been consumed or destroyed. The most well-known ones are those based on irrigation (without drainage), which eventually results in salt being accumulated in the soil so that the production capacity is lost, as in ancient Babylon and Egvpt. There was no new tufts of grass in sight or within jumping distance on the time scale, so the cultures wasted away.

There is one important difference between the historical examples and today’s situation. Historically, many cultures utilised different resource bases in such a way that, although one cuture might consume its resource base and succumb, others could surviv e. With modern transportanon systems and a global market, however, there is no local shortage of copper or butter in any part of the world where people can afford to pay for them. Shortages take on a global relevance and are first felt where the ability to pay is lowest, not where the wastefulness is greatest. Mankind has become a single technological culture. One might say that we are all standing on the same tuft of grass or that the Earth has itself become one.

Where are the limits to growth?

If one attempts to analyse the limiting parameters for mankind's development in a dynamic light, ie. by trying to take account of technological development, one finds that the limitations do not lie primarily in the availability of non-renewable resources . Far-reaching substitution possibilities exist both for metals and for minerals.

The term lorel has, moreover, been defined in economic terms. It is a deposit which is economically feasible to extract. On the basis of the disribution of the elements in the Earth's crust, one might formulate the following rule of thumb: if the price of an element doubles, the economically extractable ore increases tenfold.

One possible exception to the conclusion that the availability of elements is not a limiting factor is phosphorus. Phosphorus, in the form of phosphate, is mainly used as a fertiliser and its use is essential to a high long-term biomass yield. There is no possibility of substitution. Plants will no begin using arsenic, whatever the price structures of mankind's economic systems.

The limitations are therefore unlikely to be noticed on the supply side first. Instead it wil1 be the emissions that first impose the limits. Emissions of carbon dioxide will pose real difficulties long before the availability of fossil fuels does. The ac cumulation of cadmium in agricultural land will be a problem long before cadmium shortages become acute.

Another difficult limitation is to be found in the biomaterial-freshwater-energy triangle. In simple terms, one might say that if we could solve one of the problems in this complex, we would have the solution to them all since, however, they are interdependent, we find ourselves in a Catch 22 situation. One problem cannot be solved unless one of the others has been solved first, which in turn requires that the initial problem is dealt with. If we only had the energy, we could desalinate seawater and transport it to wherever we need it. Then we could grow the biomass and get all the energy we need.

The static approach

The traditional approach of the Club of Rome has not outlived its interest in any way, however. In many contexts, it can be worth adopting a static point of departure in describing the current situation and problems as they appear in the light of current values, lifestyles and technologies, so that we can see where changes in the parameters have the greatest effect.

The question can thus be formulated as follows: how many people can the Earth support at the average standard of the OECD nations, with the average technology of these nations, before the accumulation of residual products or shortages of biomaterial-fresh water-energy become limiting parameters? Depending on what sort of limits one has in mind, the answer lies somewhere between 400 and 800 million. If the best available technology were to be used, the figure would be much higher, albeit still far below the current world population.

The problem is that more than a billion people are already living at this material standard without using the best available technology in any way, and a further four and a half billion aspire to it. One can therefore observe that, with a static approach, the current development is unsustainable. How about a dynamic approach?

High technology - the problem or the solution?

On the basis of the dynamic approach - ie. the concept of sustainable development - the most important test of whether or not a technology or activity is sustainable is to be found in fflow annalysis. If this shows that the activities tend to use more ren ewable resources than are being generated, or that the concentration of residual products in the biosphere tends to increase, then the action is not sustainable. The technology must eventually be abandoned, or modified so as to achieve an cycle.

In this context, it is worth drawing attention to the change in the front line of the environmental debate among almost all industrialised nations during the past decade. Ten years ago, the debate focused on whether or not environmental issues were even i mportant. The dividing line was drawn between those who wanted to protect the environment at any price and those who considered protection to be unnecessary and environmentalism to be hysterical. Today, practicallyeveryone realizes that the environment n eeds protecting and, moreover, that such protection is a matter of long-term economic necessity.

Nowadays, the dividing line is drawn between those who feel that we should protect the environment by refraining from (large-scale) harmfiul technology and those who want to protect it by developing and refining the technology. The nuclear power debate in Sweden serves to illustrate the issue. Should we close down nuclear power or replace today's nuclear power stations with inherent safety systems? Should we endeavour to make nuclear power renewable and sustainable by extracting the uranium from the sea w hich is constantly being leached from the land?

Two cycles

Although the term "cycle" is considered unambiguous in everyday usasge, it actually involves two types of process which in many practical applications involve different requirements and thus come into conflict with one another.

The natural ecocycles assume that the substances that we use are degradable and can be regenerated in the natural environment. Such substances, however natural they may be in themselves, must also be dispersed so that they do not occur in unnatural amount s or concentrations.

The technical cycles - those which we create with our own technology - assume, on the other hand, that the substances that are to be re-used are persistent and that they occur in large volumes or high concentrations so that the energy required for gatheri ng them is not excessive.

Paper, which is a natural product, can be used to exemplify this problem. Cellulose fibre is degradable, both biologically and chemically. Iike the raw material, timber, it can be recirculated in natural cycles. When we want to recycle paper, however, th is very degradability becomes a disadvantage. After going through the process a nunber of times, the cellulose loses the properties which give the paper its basic characterisiics. Technical recycling would be easier if cellulose were persistent.

Obviously, it is easier to maintain ecocycles in rural areas. Emptying a latrine in the natural environment would hardly give rise to any environmental problems, but the toilet waste from a big city would constitute a rather unmanageable heap. In our ever yday conceptions, environmentally sound living means living in the countryside in harmony with nature, while urban city-dwelling symbolises environmentaly destructive lifestyles and a high level of resource consumption.

Seen in terms of technical development, however, the cities come into a new environmental light. Without reflecting on the matter, the spontaneous reaction might be that the major cities of the world can never be ecologically sustainable. (The majority of the world population is expected to consist of city dwellers soon after the turn of the century.) However, the city makes technical cycles possible and it is quite probable that recycling will reinforce the process of urbanisation. The example of paper recycling may also serve to illustrate this. If paper is recycled as much as the fibre quality allows - perhaps 80 per cent - the source of raw materials for paper mills will primarily, coincide with the market, ie. the urban regions. This is where the ne w paper mills will be built and where the employment opportunities will be created, which will in turn promote migration to the cities and consequent urban growth.

In a series of novels about Stockholm, The Swedish author Per-Anders Fogelstr�m has made a general observation which may be of major significance in the context of urban and global environmental issues. He has said that in the city, unlike the countryside , more people die than are born. The cities never have a birth su~plus - they grow as a result of migration. Could it be that urbanisation is the key to global population stabilisation?

Individual lifestyles

In order to illustrate the divergence between country life and life in the city, both in a modern society, one can perform estimates of the environmental impact of a typical country family and a typical urban family and the results leave no room for doub t. The long trips to school and shops and the heating of large, poorly insulated houses overshadow all else by a wide margin and mean that the move from the country to the city reduces a familys environmental impact. City dwelling is, in most cases, more resource-friendly and thus more environmentally sound than living in rural areas.

In other words, it is travel and heating that are the areas of our western lifestyle where our individual choices have the greatest impact on the environment. For "normal" lifestyles, these are followed by hot water consumption (bath, shower and laundry) , the amount of meat in the diet, clothes and shoes and in Sweden of the use of motorized leisure equipment. In many of these cases there has been a development over the last decade where the technology has become much more resource effective. Such examples include the Otto or Diesel motor cars as much as insulation and heating systems for houses or appartment buildings. At the same time convinience systems like air conditioning and power steering have used up much ofthe savings in cars and increased numbers have made the environmental loadings larger than they were. Similarly increased indoor temperatures (in cold climates- decreased in warm ones) and larger average living space have more than compensated for the technical gains. With household warm water consumption technical progress with regard to machines for la undry and dishwashing has been overrun by a young generations preference for frequent and longlasting showers.

Typical for this list of the worst household routines with regard to environrnental loading (where factors have been ranked according to the system commonly used for LCA analyses) is that both on the individual and national level increased income immediately, results in increased consumption of these items. It is also clear that most of the innatives to promote a more environmentally friendly lifestyle disregard the very factors that mostly determines our contribution to environmental degradation.

Social organisation and behaviour

The environmental problems of the cities are largely related to traffic: the transportation of people and goods. Countless analyses and studies have endeavoured to find solutions in terms of traffic planning and vehicle technology, or have considered the possibilities of economic instruments - subsidies and charges - in order to make public transport more attractive than private motoring. Many measures have been tested and others are pending. As so often, the state is attempting to offset the consequence s of the right hand's actions with those of the left. A large proportion of journeys by private motorists in Stockholm take place in leased cars. Smce taxation of this perquisite is independent of the distance driven, journeys are free once the motorist h as his or her car. The only reason to use public transport would be if it were to be faster. Since traffic planning measures are aimed at improving the traffic flow, however, this is unlikely to be the case. One might be able to reduce car trafric by chan ging the leasing system, however.

The above should not be interpreted as implying that measures which target traffic planning and vehicle technology have been of no significance when it comes to reducing the environmental impact of transport. Less lead in petrol, catalytic emission contro l, more energy-efflcient engines and traffic systems around the city centres and smoother traffic flows have all meant a lot. The city air has also improved. Measures, whether planned or implemented cost money, however. A lot of money. The lack of funds t hat can be earmarked for environmental purposes often appears to be the real obstacle to environmentally sound action in this field. However, it is easy to identify measures that the economists would applaud and which would also mean that the impact of tr affic on the city environment could be drastically reduced. If, for instance, we were to switch from working eight hours a day for five days a week and instead worked in shifts of thirteen hours per day, three days a week, journeys to and from work would be reduced by 40 per cent at the same time as the utilisation of premises and machinery would be almo st doubled. Both the environment and the economy would benefit - as, perhaps, would family life.

Apart from illustrating that there are other interests incompatible with the environment than purely economic ones, this example can serve to demonstrate the environmental potential of social organisation and behavioural changes.

Questions raised by sustainable development

The above discussion illustrates a couple of points which are central to the choice and interpretation of the guiding principles for the sustainable development that must be mankind's objective.

First: sustainable development has not been clarified in such a way as to make it practical as a political measurement. In our view, the principle must be applied to technologies rather than individual projects in order to be applicable, and the overall scope of an activity is a crucial factor. The time horizon according to which the sustainability of an activity is judged must be set at a few thousand years, at least. Further clarification is required, however, particularly when it comes to international acceptance of the above or of similar analyses of the concepts involved.

Secondly: the resource base, the technologies and the population represent the traditional main components of development and sustainability. Other overlooked components that probably offer considerable potential include social organisati on, systems of values and behaviour. This means that effective control systems will incorporate ethics, morals and economic policies. How should such control systems be designed and who is to introduce them?

Thirdly: the ecocycle principle, which is a central concept - even a criteria - of sustainable development, consists in its practical application of two separate components, invohing quite different prerequisites. The ecocycle society is dual in nature - one natural component where degradability and dilution represent a benefit and one technical component which requires persistence and concentration. These two may require different social organisations, control systems and technologies. H ow are they to be designed and made to work in harmony with one another?

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