The terms of today’s ecological debate
The Río+20 Conference on the global ecological situation is over.
Beyond the results, which did not meet expectations or needs,
there are new concepts in the current debate
that call to all of us and make us all responsible.
Some of these new terms are: eco-development,
green economy, ecological footprint and anthropocene.
Around 11,000 years ago, the Earth’s temperature began to rise naturally, causing the progressive melting of the last great glacier age. A large part of the water, by moving from solid to liquid, raised the level of the oceans, separated the lands of the continents, formed islands, stimulated the formation of forests and other environments. Scientists gave this new phase the name Holocene.
The ecological footprintIn these last 11,000 years only Homo Sapiens remained of the homonids that became sovereign all over the planet. With a well-developed brain, it was challenged by the new climatic conditions and domesticated plants and animals, invented agricultural activity, created technology to polish stone, invented the wheel, weaving and metallurgy. Later it created cities, empires, dams, drains and irrigation. Various civilizations exceeded the limits of the ecosystems in which they grew up, generating environmental crises that contributed to their termination.
With that the concept of ecological footprint appeared, referring to the degree of ecological impact produced by an individual, an activity, an economy or a society. The ecological footprint of civilizations preceding the Western one always had a regional nature, sometimes reversible and sometimes not. The Western civilization was the one wearing the heaviest boots known so far. The weight began with capitalism, which transformed the world.
Starting in the 15th century, Western civilization—read European—began to make deep prints with its maritime expansion. It imposed its culture on other areas of the planet. The world was westernized and also began to stamp heavily on the environment. Then another transformation came with the industrial revolution, whose origin is pinned to 18th-century England but was extended though out the world, dividing it into industrialized countries and those that exported raw materials. With the industrial revolution another planetary reality began to be created, with emissions of bases that caused warming, devastation of forests and jungles, impoverishment of the biodiversity, inappropriate soil use, intense urbanization, profound alternations in the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles, contamination of the fresh water, thinning of the ozone layer and excessive extraction of non-renewable natural resources, producing previously unimagined quantities of non-biodegradable garbage.
The anthropoceneScientists are demonstrating that within the Holocene (holos = whole + koinos = new), the collective human action in both capitalism and socialism has triggered an unprecedented environmental crisis in the history of the Earth because it has been generated by a single species. They have called the post-industrial revolution period Anthropocene, a geological phase constructed by the collective action of human beings (antropos = humans + koinos = new).
To deal with this great crisis of the new era, the United Nations has been promoting major international conferences:: Stockholm (1972), Río 92 (1992) and now Río+20. The objective is to resolve the problems of the Anthropocene, whether by conciliating economic development with environmental protection or by seeking other forms of development. Río 92 adopted the formula of sustainable development, which has been acquiring different meanings, including some antagonistic to the original one.
Green economyThe Río+20 Conference is attempting to put the environmental, social and economic dimensions on an equal footing. The magic word now is green economy, although its content isn’t clear. It is assumed that, at a minimum, it means progressively replacing intensive carbon-based energy sources with renewable sources of energy, as well as substituting renewable resources for non-renewable ones.
Río+20 demonstrated that the industrialized countries don’t want to abdicate their position, that the emerging countries want to catch up to the industrialized one and that the poor countries want to emerge. As long as there’s no understanding about the planet’s limits, it’s useless to think about social justice and economic development. The environment is more than either the social or the economic dimensions, as without it no solution can be found for either the social injustices or the economic lags. The concept of eco-development seems to be the most correct one both tactically and strategically.
Leonardo Boff is a Brazilian theologian and philosopher.