This is one of those le sigh posts. Having been born in 1989, it sometimes feels as if it is upon our generation to figure out the way into a sustainable future. When analyzing current policy priorities, one would assume that the problems attached to indefinite per-capita consumption – concerning resource use, pollution and social justice, amongst others – have only recently surfaced. Imagine my astonishment, then, when I looked up the policy priorities agreed upon at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro 1992 (when I was a toddler, 3 years of age), and realized that the major insights had already then existed! Check out these points from the so-called Agenda 21, the global policy agenda for the 21st century (own emphasis added):
4.5. Special attention should be paid to the demand for natural resources generated by unsustainable consumption and to the efficient use of those resources consistent with the goal of minimizing depletion and reducing pollution. Although consumption patterns are very high in certain parts of the world, the basic consumer needs of a large section of humanity are not being met. This results in excessive demands and unsustainable lifestyles among the richer segments, which place immense stress on the environment. The poorer segments, meanwhile, are unable to meet food, health care, shelter and educational needs. Changing consumption patterns will require a multipronged strategy focusing on demand, meeting the basic needs of the poor, and reducing wastage and the use of finite resources in the production process.
4.6. Growing recognition of the importance of addressing consumption has also not yet been matched by an understanding of its implications. Some economists are questioning traditional concepts of economic growth and underlining the importance of pursuing economic objectives that take account of the full value of natural resource capital. More needs to be known about the role of consumption in relation to economic growth and population dynamics in order to formulate coherent international and national policies.
4.8. In principle, countries should be guided by the following basic objectives in their efforts to address consumption and lifestyles in the context of environment and development:
a. All countries should strive to promote sustainable consumption patterns;
b. Developed countries should take the lead in achieving sustainable consumption patterns;
c. Developing countries should seek to achieve sustainable consumption patterns in their development process, guaranteeing the provision of basic needs for the poor, while avoiding those unsustainable patterns, particularly in industrialized countries, generally recognized as unduly hazardous to the environment, inefficient and wasteful, in their development processes. This requires enhanced technological and other assistance from industrialized countries.
4.11. Consideration should also be given to the present concepts of economic growth and the need for new concepts of wealth and prosperity which allow higher standards of living through changed lifestyles and are less dependent on the Earth’s finite resources and more in harmony with the Earth’s carrying capacity. This should be reflected in the evolution of new systems of national accounts and other indicators of sustainable development.
4.17. In the years ahead, Governments, working with appropriate organizations, should strive to meet the following broad objectives:
a. To promote efficiency in production processes and reduce wasteful consumption in the process of economic growth, taking into account the development needs of developing countries;
b. To develop a domestic policy framework that will encourage a shift to more sustainable patterns of production and consumption;
c. To reinforce both values that encourage sustainable production and consumption patterns and policies that encourage the transfer of environmentally sound technologies to developing countries.
4.24. Without the stimulus of prices and market signals that make clear to producers and consumers the environmental costs of the consumption of energy, materials and natural resources and the generation of wastes, significant changes in consumption and production patterns seem unlikely to occur in the near future.
4.25. Some progress has begun in the use of appropriate economic instruments to influence consumer behaviour. These instruments include environmental charges and taxes, deposit/refund systems, etc. This process should be encouraged in the light of country-specific conditions.”
How progressive, right? Especially – did you catch the emphasis on devising different economic models going beyond conventional growth models? And the call for governments to set policy frameworks that make sustainable consumption the easier option?
But the devil lies in the details, of course. Already in the 1997 General Assembly’s Programme for the Further Implementation of Agenda 21, as Jeffrey Barber points out in his article on the World Summit on Sustainable Consumption, important elements have gone missing, including the controversial questioning of “present concepts of economic growth”, the mention of the Earth’s “carrying capacity”, as well as the call for integrative policy frameworks. Instead, “the 1997 Programme mentions only that ‘the development and further elaboration of national policies and strategies … are needed.’ (para 28).“
Subsequently, every follow-up summit after the Earth Summit (known as Rio+10, Rio+15, and lastly in 2012 Rio+20) have lamented the implementation gap that stands between the original policy intentions and the current situation. According to Jeffrey Barber:
One of the reasons why the OECD and CSD have given less attention to sustainable consumption policy is the ‘huge risk’ that ‘what is ecologically necessary will not be politically feasible.’ The message that ‘we must use far fewer natural resources and must pay more’ is clearly an unwelcome message to public and politicians alike. Yet the problem and challenge remain of how to effectively balance sustainable production policies with politically feasible sustainable production policies that are not seen as an attack on people’s living standards.
How that is politically feasible within the current systems – with short election cycles, political preoccupation with economic growth and GDP figures as indicators for development and progress, and citizens that either have gotten used to a very high standard of living or that are aspiring to achieve the same – is a question that I don’t have an easy answer to. And yet, I think it’s the defining question of our time. Next time, I’ll provide a couple of suggested answers, such as for example the Voluntary Simplicity Movement. But for now, I’ll let you reflect on your own lifestyle – is it sustainable yet?