Now the rich must adjust
says it is the turn of affluent countries to embrace
the discipline of structural adjustment if
over consumption and resources is to be addressed
There is little cause for pride on the world's score-card five years after Rio - and still less for complacency. It is
worthy neither of the process of the Earth Summit itself, nor of its promises, qualified as they were. Five years on,
humanity barely earns an 'E' for effort. Astonishing, when it is all about survival. Yet we still claim to be Homo
In the review of progress now being undertaken by the international community, there is a case for weighing up
developments on all the separate issues that together make up the environmental problem facing the world - and for
being concerned with the detail. But there is also a danger that, engrossed in the detail, we may miss the larger
picture, and that in focusing on a number of issues, however important, we might lose sight of the big one.
The big issue posed by the challenge of environment is that of resources versus consumption. The crux of sustainable
development is to order global development in such a way that its impact on the Earth's resources does not imperil the
life chances of those who will follow us. We who live now do not have freehold rights to the Earth's ecological
capital: we are only tenants with temporary custody and the moral obligation to act as responsible trustees. We say
this almost rhetorically; we do not live by its precepts.
Resources, and how we use them, are at the heart of most of our environmental problems. There are questions about the
world's continuing capacity to produce the food - grain, fish, meat - needed for an expanding population. There has
been worry that water scarcities could become dangerously acute. There are signs that the modern world's love affair
with the motor vehicle is coming under strain. Concern has been expressed about land, energy, raw materials, wastes,
Environmental disquiet has undoubtedly spurred action on all these - and other - fronts. But the push for growth, the
drive to increase the gross domestic product, goes inexorably on, as if it had no link to all these other issues. It
is assumed without question that people in even the most affluent countries must have a higher standard of material
well-being year after year - and that this process of enrichment must go on without interruption, without end.
The impulse to achieve economic growth is natural and necessary in poorer countries. Living standards are, on average,
much lower, and many hundreds of millions of their people are still to be lifted out of the most abject poverty and
deprivation. The dazzling performance of some developing nations, primarily the 'Asian Tigers', has tended to obscure
the stubborn persistence of poverty. The success of these countries notwithstanding, the poor are not only still with
us, but now with us in larger numbers than ever.
Globalization may have transformed the world economy in many respects but there are parts it has not reached, people
it has not touched, and others it has affected not to enrich, but to impoverish. As many as 1.6 billion people - more
than a fourth of the world population - are poorer than they were 15 years ago, says the United Nations Development
Programme. In 19 countries, people are poorer than they were 35 years ago. Not for them the easy assumption that
living standards would continue to improve from year to year; the hard reality has been that their incomes, meagre as
they are, have gone on falling, year after year.
Roughly three-quarters of the world's people live in developing countries - but, because they are poor, they account
for only a quarter of the world's consumption. Their living standards urgently demand to be raised, not least so that
their basic needs of food, health, education and shelter may not remain unfulfilled. They have as much right to the
use of the world's resources as any other of the world's people. But if total world consumption cannot be increased
without running down the world's ecological capital, poor countries can only have a larger slice of the pie if rich
countries are ready to countenance a different distribution - and adjust to a smaller share for themselves.
Need to adjust
For over two decades the world's financial institutions - and the industrial nations that control them - have
prescribed structural adjustment to poor countries, who have had little choice but to take this medicine to recover
their economic health. Now the world's ecological health - and therefore the interests of all humankind - requires a
similar prescription for the rich. They need to undertake adjustment - to a lower level of consumption, to a more
equitable distribution of resources, to an acceptance that economic growth cannot be boundless. How industrial
countries respond to the need for adjustment on their part is becoming increasingly vital to our common future on
planet Earth. That is how the big issue of resources versus consumption now confronts us.
So far there is no evidence that this issue is being faced seriously. Some developments suggest that people in
industrial societies are becoming aware that growth cannot continue unchecked, at least in some fields. There is, for
instance, enlarging resistance to the encroachments of motor vehicles; protests against new motorways are no longer
rare, nor are demands for car-free zones. But these local expressions of civic impatience do not add up to a general
acknowledgement that environmental dangers require affluent countries to embrace the discipline of adjustment.
So far in the global discussion of our environmental predicament, the tendency has been to put the focus on human
numbers, on population growth, as the crucial source of environmental stress. Population is undoubtedly part of the
picture, and the developing world, where the growth in numbers is predominantly taking place, must hold its growth
down. But it is through consumption that people impact on the environment, and because people in industrial countries
consume much more per head, the one-quarter of the world population living in them presses far more heavily on the
environment than the poorer three-quarters who live in the developing world.
Five years after Rio, we need a wider acceptance that how much we consume - and therefore how aggressively, and often
unthinkingly, we go for growth - is critical to our common future on this planet.
Sir Shridath Ramphal, for 15 years Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, is Co-Chairman of the Commission on
Global Governance, and author of Our Country, The Planet, written for the Earth Summit.