Public Comment

Sustainability: What Have We Really Accomplished?

By Nazreen Kadir
Tuesday November 06, 2007

In 1992, the Earth First conference in Rio de Janeiro brought together people from all over the world, from all disciplines and walks of life, to address the issue of sustainability, especially in relation to the earth’s diversity of species—its living systems. Among other topics, Rio ’92 addressed polices of the rich countries that drove poor people who live off the land to adopt certain “slash and burn” practices detrimental to the environment. Out of Rio ‘92 flowed the United Nations Biodiversity Convention which the United States was one of the last countries to ratify. A similar stance was taken over the Kyoto Protocol that addresses the emission of greenhouse gases that are not sustainable to the earth’s environment. 

Since 1992, the international community has moved slowly towards the awareness and acceptance that rich countries in the Northern Hemisphere, with about 20 percent of global population, consume roughly eighty percent of the earth’s resources, including oil from non-renewable fossil fuel. Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth has helped to increase global awareness of this uneven consumption and negative environmental consequences that no doubt earned him the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. 

One of the proposed solutions to the finite-supply-of-oil problem, is the search for renewable forms of energy. This includes development of solar, geothermal and wind as sources of energy. But the big oil companies, in partnership with various governments, are pushing the idea that genetically-engineered crops, grasses and weeds, for example, can provide bio-fuels to replace oil used in vehicles. Assuming research is successful, how will this technology be deployed? Who will gain and who will lose? These are important public policy questions that governments everywhere and the public must address before jumping on private sector’s big oil agenda.  

There is evidence already that ethanol production from genetically modified corn has certain negative environmental and economic externalities and small farmers from the midwestern states are opposed to this. Palm oil bio-fuel plantations have displaced many people in Southeast Asia, the consequences of which are not dissimilar to those faced by dislocated Hurricane Katrina and Asian Tsunami victims. War-for-oil policies have wreaked disaster in Iraq and threaten the Middle East and further devastation of agricultural lands in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. What have we accomplished since 1992 in terms of sustainability on the planet?  

If we accept the United Nations’ underlying principles of sustainability—reduce, re-use, recycle—then the big oil renewable energy agenda must be challenged. Aside from the scientific and technical arguments regarding the ecological consequences of mass-scale bioengineered fuel plantations which the European Union will no doubt oppose in its own back yard, even if it involves its own British Petroleum or Shell, big oil business models and agendas are not driven by reduction of consumption, one of the chief principles of sustainability. In fact, its growth plan is based on increased number of vehicles run on bio-fuels. Even if this form of energy proves to be environmentally “clean” which is itself debatable, where would these plantations be located? In whose lands? Displacing which populations? Employing which slave-laborers? These are serious public policy questions that need to be discussed in open public forums all across the planet. We can no longer be concerned only with fueling our own SUVs and humvees, and the growing demand for cars in China, without worrying about the livelihoods of others even if they are in the Southern Hemisphere. We cannot continue to expect refugee relief, non-governmental agencies, and reactionary immigration policies to fix hunger and starvation of millions of people brought on by irresponsible front-end polices based on greed and increased consumption.  

Here in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, we must adopt sensible sustainability practices in terms of peoples’ needs. Key to this is land use and industrial development policies. A priority for land use policies, in light of the need for job creation, should be a preference for the types of industries that is also good for the environment. These industries include re-use and recycle, as well as wind and solar-based renewable energy, clean-technology industries that produce goods and supplies that are needed to upgrade our buildings and make them more energy efficient. These industries do not rely only on highly educated and highly-skilled workers, the way the bioengineering sector does. This emerging “truly green” sector needs to be carefully nurtured and not shoved aside by big oil agendas. 

Sustainability does not mean only environmental protection and clean energy. It means sustainable development for people and attention to those communities most in need of infusion of financial capital for revitalization, alleviation of poverty and reduction of crime. Building model cities requires the adoption of widely accepted principles of sustainability, such as reducing the reliance on cars as a primary mode of transportation. If not we will end up with worsening poverty even with the large sums of monies that big oil is investing. Such monies typically come with terms and conditions that are not in the best interest of the poor and disadvantaged. And the fate of the latter cannot be improved by the usual trickle down economic development supported by the work of non-governmental organizations. Governments have to fully embrace what is meant by sustainability in every corner of the planet. If not, 15 years from now where will we be? Can any local, state or regional government, win the 2022 Nobel Prize for leading the way for socially-equitable sustainable development for millions of people in its jurisdiction? This will require bold leadership and vision to deviate from the usual and forge new paths where none has gone before. It can be done.  


Oakland resident Nazreen Kadir is a scholar in science and public policy at the Western Institute for Social Research.