In June 2022, the world will meet in Stockholm for the anniversary of the first UN conference. Now it must not only name the problems, but also point the way to the future.
It was close to fifty years ago that global leaders met in Stockholm in 1972 to discuss the environment challenge. Then – more than a generation ago – the concern was for the local environment; there was no talk of climate change or even the depletion of the ozone layer. All that came later. In 1972, the discussion revolved around pollution, as the waters and air were foul. Anil Agarwal, CSE’s founder director, was in Stockholm for this first-ever UN Conference on the Human Environment, and he spoke often about how the lakes of the city were so polluted with industrial effluent that you could develop a camera film in the waters. These lakes are now pristine, so you could argue that much has changed in the past 50 years. But not really. Today our concern is not so much about the toxification of the environment, as countries have indeed cleaned up locally, but the emissions we are adding to the global atmosphere. Today, 50 years later, we have run out of time as climate change impacts spiral out of control.
As we approach Stockholm + 50, we are looking at an increasingly inequitable world; one in which poverty and marginalization is growing and where climate change risks are now reaching not just the homes of the poor, but also the rich. We therefore need to change paths; to re-configure – not just our language but also our approach to what we can call our common future. When the world marks the anniversary of Stockholm + 50, it must stand differently – not to state the problem, but to show the way ahead.
This is also why we need to discuss consumption, and by extension, production. We cannot side-step this issue anymore. This is the most inconvenient of all discussions. The fact is that when we stitched up the global ecological framework in terms of the many agreements – from ozone, climate, biodiversity to desertification and hazardous waste – the world realized that the actions of individual countries exceeded their boundaries. We had to act globally and cooperatively as we live in an interdependent world. But at this time, we also signed another agreement on free trade – the economic globalization agreement.
We never really understood how these two frameworks – ecological and economic globalization – would counteract each other. As a result, we have worked to build an economic model based on discounting the price of labor and of the environment. We have pushed production where the associated costs are cheaper; we have built for over-production as goods have become cheaper and more disposable. But we have also made sure that all countries are now vested in this model of growth. All countries want to be part of the global factories that produce goods as cheaply as possible. This comes at the cost of environmental safeguards and labor conditions. The poor in the world are on the aspirational ladder to get richer with more goods and more consumption and more waste.
Today, COVID-19 has disrupted this out-of-control journey to produce as cheaply as possible and to consume as much as possible. But the pandemic is temporary, and as the world builds back, it has the choice to do things differently. And this is also because COVID-19 has taught us lessons that we must not forget.
One: We have understood the value of labor – migrant labor – that was invisible and unwanted; today it has become important for industry. We have seen how labor returned home – not just in India but across the world – and how this impacted production. We can see already that industry is working hard to bring back its workers; it is offering better pay and better working conditions. This will increase the cost of production.
Two: We now understand the value of blue skies and clear lungs – we know that the lockdown resulted in reduced pollution and we value this now. Investing in environmental protection will increase the cost of production as well.
Three: We understand the value of investing in land-agriculture-water systems. People have gone back to their villages; they are rebuilding their livelihoods. It is time to secure resilient futures there with food production systems that are sustainable, nature-friendly and good for health.
Four: We are now in the world of work-from-home; even when the new-normal arrives, we will want to have hybrid systems that will allow us to work remotely and reduce travel stress, but also have interactions and collaborations that enrich our world. This will change consumption patterns as well.
And five: Governments are financially strapped and so they have to spend much more and cannot afford waste. This is where they will want to invest in circular economies – finding ways of making resource out of waste, to do more with less.
All this has the potential of changing the way we consume and the way we produce. So, as the world meets again to mark 50 years of the start of the conversation on human beings and their impact of the environment, we have the opportunity to do it right by nature this time. We now have the existential crisis of climate change that is staring us in the face. We cannot waste any more time merely talking the talk. It’s not an option. Not anymore.
Dr Sunita Narain is a publicist and environmentalist. She is the director of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in India and editor of the journal Down To Earth.
This is a translation of a text first published in the magazine Böll.Thema 50 years of international environmental policy.