20 years ago, the ecological crisis was already quite evident. Enough for world leaders to worry about it, and to call for a global “Earth Summit”.

At the time, humanity yearly consumed resources and caused pollution at a rate that Nature could regenerate in approximately one year time. But it was clear that this rate was growing. The environmental crisis was growing and the unsustainability of the (even then) current way of life was obvious.

The response of the Earth Summit in Rio (1992), was the launching of the concept of “sustainable development”. The concept was based on three “interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars”: economic development, social development, and environmental protection. The basic idea was that the three are compatible, and that there does not need to be a contradiction between economic development and protection of the environment.

Evaluating the “pilars”

20 years is quite some time to see if a proposed scheme works, so, time for an evaluation of the evolution of the three interdependent pillars:


1. Economy has received most attention, and was totally enhanced.

    • during this period, world GDP grew approximately 80%
    • hundreds of multilateral, regional and bilateral economic agreements were established
    • the whole international trade system is legally binding and counts with enforcement mechanisms that have more power than individual nations, in particular the ICSID.
    • In times of economic crisis, states have mobilised billions to save the banks
    • The only valid indicator states use to see how they are doing is the growth rate of their GDP

2. For social development, some progress was made:

  • Several agreements were made, at a multilateral level.
  • New bilateral or regional agreements on social issues are scarce
  • The enforcement of those agreements has been weak, with only a few international institutions having the possibility to emit judicious sentences, but only for those states that accept them.
  • the millennium development goals were decided upon, and up to some degree, progress has been made to try to meet them

3. For environmental protection growth seemed to come from the wrong side:

  • On climate change, global green house gas (GHG) emissions grew with around 30% and the GHG concentrations in the atmosphere increased from 354 ppm (just on the 350- safety limit most scientist establish) to 392 ppm, far above this limit.
  • Biodiversity loss escalated, up to more than 100 species/million a year
  • There were multiple human-induced ecological disasters in this period, including several major oil spills and a major nuclear disaster. Nevertheless no policies to prevent this kind of events happening were elaborated, on the contrary, every day more projects that imply huge dangers are approved
  • the global ecological footprint is now 1,5 times Earth’s capacity, while 20 years ago, this was approximately 1 time its capacity.
  • Almost none of the environmental agreements are subject to strict compliance systems.

In synthesis, although there has been many conventions, summits and declarations on the environmental side, almost non of them has been enforceable, and the results are clear: the environment is in a worse situation than ever.

So, while sustainable development established three “equal” priorities, it is clear which one prevailed, and which one wasn’t really prioritized. No building can stand on uneven pillars.

Looking for a new paradigm

But, let’s take one step back. Should the three pillars really be of equal importance? Or, rather, is the one pillar the inevitable condition for others to stand? Let’s be clear: without the natural conditions, no social nor economic development is possible!

As a wise indigenous saying says “Only when the last tree has been cut down; Only when the last river has been poisoned; Only when the last fish has been caught; Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.”

The importance of a healthy environment for human wellbeing and even as a condition for the economic functioning is something everybody agrees on. Indeed, a development that doesn´t take into account the intrinsic laws of nature, and that lives up it’s resources at a faster level then the capacity for regeneration of mother earth, is unsustainable by definition.

If we take it as a fact that we have to keep our common activity within the limits of natures capacities and laws, then the next thing humanity should do is to define the fairest way possible of sharing the resources and living possibilities with all human beings. This, the social element, is the next level.

And then, having clear that Mother Earth’s health is imperative, that social wellbeing is a common aspiration for humanity, then economy should be put in function of those other elements. Economical policies should make sure that nature and social wellbeing are to be respected.

Nothing can be nor supportable, nor viable, nor equitable, and much less sustainable, if the first condition is not fulfilled: a healthy environment.

Rio+20: A reflection and adjustment of this unbalanced scheme?

The logical thing for Rio+20 would have been to make an evaluation of 20 years of sustainable development, and adjust any factor that causes a lack in equilibrium.

Unfortunately, quiet the contrary has happened. There was no such thing as an official evaluation, not about the current situation of the environment and the development, nor about the adequacy of policies that have been implemented in the name of sustainable development.

On the contrary, a new “response” was prepared, under the name of “green economy”. The green economy enhances exactly the pillar of the sustainable development that is already the most inflated: it proposes an unlimited economic growth –the final text mentioned ‘sustained economic growth’ not less than 23 times. It claims that technological advances will imply that the impact on the environment will decrease, and proposes economical mechanisms, such as the payment for ecosystem services, which incorporate the environment in the economic scheme, and puts the environment at the service of the economy.

The future this is leading to, may not be exactly the one we want: a future where economy is prioritized over social wellbeing, and where social wellbeing is being prioritized over Mother Earth. This can go only as far as Nature permits us.

1 Comment

  1. Here is a possible way forward: the Common Welfare Economy (see: http://www.gemeinwohl-oekonomie.org/en/uber-uns/gwo-in-3-min/). Environmental and societal concerns are included in evaluating and rewarding companies for their performance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *