All we need do to destroy the earth’s ecosystem is to continue what we are doing, says James Gustave Speth

The past half-century of unprecedented economic expansion has wrought havoc on the environment. In response, environmental management has emerged as a new business that sets out to harmonize human activity with the natural world that it inhabits. This is, arguably, the most urgent business in the world – a fact that will become ever-more apparent in the coming years.

Environmental losses are already substantial. Half of the world’s tropical and temperate forests are gone. Half of the wetlands and a third of the mangroves have been depleted. About 90% of large predator fish are gone, and 75% of marine fisheries are now overfished or fished to capacity. Almost 20% of the coral has vanished, and another 20% is severely-threatened. Species are disappearing at rates 100 to 1,000 times the normal pace. Most agricultural land in drier regions suffers from serious deterioration. Persistent toxic chemicals are now present in most of our bodies.
Human activities are having an ever-greater impact on natural systems. The earth’s stratospheric ozone layer was severely depleted without us realizing it. We have pushed atmospheric carbon dioxide up by one-third and started the dangerous process of warming the planet and disrupting the climate. The planet’s ice fields are melting.

Nitrogen is being “fixed” artificially as fast as it is being fixed naturally, leading to overfertilization. One result is the development of at least 150 dead zones in the oceans. We already consume or destroy about 40% of nature’s photosynthetic output each year, leaving too little for other species. Freshwater withdrawals doubled globally between 1960 and 2000 and are now approaching a quarter of all river flow. Vital rivers, including the Colorado, Yellow, Ganges and Nile, no longer reach the oceans in the dry season.

A different world

Our world is dramatically different from the world of 1900, or even 1955. All that is needed to destroy the planet’s climate and its biota (animal and plant life) is that we keep doing exactly what we are doing today, even with no growth in the human population or the world economy.
Yet human activity is growing – dramatically. It took all of human history to build the $7 trillion world economy of the 1950s. Today we add that amount of economic activity every five to 10 years, and the world economy is set to quadruple by mid-century. This sort of economic growth requires radically-new designs and technologies.
Everything – construction, manufacturing, energy production, transport, forestry and agriculture – must change to keep up.

The challenge of environmental management is to forestall an even more profound deterioration of our natural world. It involves the rigorous scientific study of interactions between human societies and the natural world. We need a new generation of professionals trained in environmental management. We also need knowledge of the environment to infuse the traditional professions – business, law, science and engineering, medicine, and so on – and to motivate a revolution in personal choice as each of us carries out daily life as consumer, family member, investor, joiner, worshipper, worker and voter. Environmental management thus becomes a civic duty of the first order.

Collaboration instead of confrontation

In the 1970s, when the modern era of environmental concern first emerged, the attitude of the environmentalists was confrontation: business was the enemy. Today, however, we need to put collaboration ahead of confrontation. We must all be environmentalists now. Every economic sector must now become an environmental sector, while every government agency must also be an environmental protection agency.

The market, too, can be guided for environmental as well as economic goals. That guidance, however, requires government action to get the prices right – environmentally-honest prices. Anti-government ideologues would rob us of the power of collective action for our common future.

Today, sustainable development has replaced environmental protection as the mantra for helping poorer countries. If we are ever to sustain the biosphere, poorer countries must realize their developmental and anti-poverty goals.

Our outlook, too, has become global. Pollution, for instance, is now a global phenomenon. Environmental management, therefore, must also be global. To that extent, we need to bring global governance to the environmental sphere. We need a World Environment Organization in the same vein as a World Trade Organization. Environmental diplomacy is not a sideshow; it is the main event.

In the end, the struggle must begin locally through innovative, bottom-up, grassroots approaches. Similarly, we must shun the elitism of the last century and instead stress justice and equity – among and within nations, as well as between the sexes. We have created wonderful protected areas but sometimes neglected the poor, minorities, victims and indigenous peoples. Their environmental rights must also be asserted.
We must at long last take Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife ecology, and his land ethic seriously. “A thing is right,” he said, “when it tends to preserve the integrity, beauty and stability of the biotic community.”

Governments today, however, are often the laggards. In fact, business and scientists
as well as consumers and environmentalists are often ahead, in terms of taking concrete action in addressing such issues.

There is, in this sense, something of the spirit of the 1970s that we ought to rekindle today – the popular demand for far-reaching change. One can hear that demand plainly in the words that citizens of Santa Barbara sent to the US Congress in 1970 shortly after the devastating oil spill there: “We, therefore, resolve to act. We propose a revolution in conduct towards the environment… Today is the first day of the rest of our life on this planet. We will begin anew.”

CV James Speth

James Gustave Speth is dean and professor in the Practice of Environmental Policy and Sustainable Development at Yale University. He served as administrator of the United Nations Development Programme from 1993 to 1999.