The Global Picture

effects of population growth on the environment and on us

J. Dudley Fishburn, Moderator


The Global Picture 


Well, thank you very much, distinguished moderator. I appreciate that, and of course i do agree that texas has all the distinctive qualities that many individual countries have but has elected to be part of and to lead this great country. And i also take it as a mark of immense compliment to this great state that you have here a galaxy of its most distinguished leadership.


When the rest of the country and much of the rest of the world is focused on television for court proceedings and the recounts or hoped-for recounts that are going to determine the leadership of this nation, i congratulate texans for assembling in the name of philosophy when these great events are unfolding.

I regard it as a very special compliment that you have invited me to participate in this distinguished forum and am particularly pleased and encouraged that you are focusing your attention on issues that i believe will largely shape the future of the human community in this new millennium. I really enjoyed and appreciated this morning’s proceedings.


I will not add very much new information; indeed, i will leave out some of the information i might have otherwise included because it has been so ably presented this morning, but i will try to build on and complement the very, very impressive messages coming out of this morning’s session.

These issues have been at the core of my own life interest and work, but the views and perspectives i will share with you today are those of a practitioner, not of an expert. The more experience i have in addressing these issues, the less expertise i would claim.


Surely the events of the past decade have made abundantly clear the hazards of prediction that were referred to this morning and the dangers and the costs of relying on the prognostications of experts, especially when they become conventional wisdom. That is not to say that we must be resigned to being carried along by the cross-currents of history as it unfolds, accepting that there is little we can do to influence the direction in which they are carrying us.


Recognizing that the pathway to the future will indeed be turbulent, complex, and fraught with uncertainty, there is much we can do, indeed must do, i would contend, to prepare for a future that we cannot reliably predict.

But paradoxically, the human future is in our hands and i contend will be largely determined by what we do or fail to do in the first two or three decades of this new millennium. That doesn’t mean it will all come to an end suddenly, but the direction we take and where that’s going to take us i believe will be largely determined in this next two to three decades.


For as we enter the beginning of the twenty-first century and the new millennium, the unprecedented increases in the human population and in the scale and intensity of human activities have reached a level at which we have now become the principal architects of our own future. The system of cause and effect through which human policies and activities have their impacts on the processes by which we are shaping that future is global in scale and complex in nature.


And as cause and effect are often separated by dimensions of space and time, their real consequences are not always readily discernible. We must learn to understand the system of cause and effect and how our interventions in it can make the differences we want to make.


The overall magnitude of human activities that have an impact on the natural ecological and life support systems of the earth is often relatively small in relation to natural forces, as for example in the case of the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But they can nevertheless have a profound and perhaps decisive impact on the complex set of natural balances on which human life and well-being depend, which could move us beyond the margins of safety and sustainability.


We often think that life has gone on forever in our terms and that it’s bound to go on. We must remind ourselves that the conditions that support life on earth have existed on this planet for only a very minute portion of our geological history. They rest on a set of balances that was achieved over many millennia of geological adaptation, and we cannot take their continuation for granted when we are now affecting the very margins that make the life as we know it sustainable on the planet.


In my view, management of our impacts on this system is the principal challenge we face, and it is in that sense that i address the remainder of my remarks.


I am concerned with the numbers of the earth’s growing population, the increase in numbers we heard about this morning. But i am also impressed by the fact that highly dense societies can maintain high levels of life—dependent, yes, on external resources environment. But the issue really is how to manage them, how to manage the trade-offs between population growth in countries that have limited resources and capacities to service their people and that must decide how to balance the levels of their population against the standards and quality of life to which they aspire.


These are not global decisions. They are influenced by global considerations, but they are basically national decisions, and to help people make those decisions by understanding the options and the consequences of what they decide is one of the areas where we can support them most, not just exhorting them to reduce their population, as the presumption behind that is that it will enable us to continue to enjoy the way of life that we prefer.


Now, to do this effectively cannot simply be a matter of placing our bets on the prediction of experts, as i’ve said, however plausible they may be. Rather it involves understanding the processes through which human activities interact with each other and with natural phenomena to produce their ultimate consequences, and at what points and in what ways our interventions in the system can have the effects we desire.


Of course, this also means we must know what we desire, what risks we want to avoid, what opportunities we want to expand, at what limits or boundary conditions we must accept to ensure a secure and sustainable future.

This does not require homogeneity in our lifestyles or in our aspirations. But it does require at the global level that we agree on those certain measures that are essential to all of us to enable us to avoid major risks to the survival and well-being of the entire human community and to ensure the broadest range of opportunities for individual self expression and fulfillment.


It is instructive to remind ourselves that the most healthy and sustainable natural ecological systems are those that maintain the highest degree of diversity and variety. Monocultures are vulnerable cultures. But to ensure their sustainability requires that they remain within certain basic boundary conditions on which the healthy and effective functioning of the system depends.


The same, i would contend, is true of human systems. The essence of human freedom surely lies in the extent to which individuals have the largest range of choices as to how they want to live their lives. They do not have to make homogenous choices, but they do need to agree on the basic framework in which those choices can be made.


The processes through which human activities produce their ultimate consequences transcend the traditional boundaries of nations of sectors and of disciplines. Emissions of greenhouse gases, whatever their source, contribute to changes in climate that affect everyone, and decisions made to deal with economic and financial issues are the principal determinants of environmental and social conditions as well as ones that affect peace and security.


Recent experience, now partly transcended, in which the collapse of some of the most dynamic economies of asia rapidly developed into an emerging global crisis threatening the entire global economy, dramatically brought home that the benefits of globalization are accompanied by a new generation of risks. It made clear that no individual nation, however powerful, can insulate its people against these perils or manage them alone.


Neither can any of the main issues that affect the quality of life and sustainability of the human community: access to food and water, managing the pressures for migration, protecting the environment, meeting social needs, ensuring employment and livelihoods, and of course maintaining peace and security cannot be managed in isolation, even by the most powerful nation on earth.


          To ensure a sustainable future for humankind will require a degree of cooperative management beyond anything we have yet experienced or are now prepared for. Let me make it clear it does not require world government. That’s the last thing we need. But a world system through which these issues that no country or no sector of society can manage alone is absolutely indispensable if we are going to manage our way sustainably and peacefully into the future.


I am a great believer in the principle of subsidiarity in which every issue should be managed at the level closest to the people concerned at which it can be managed effectively. But even by that standard, more and more issues have to be managed in a global context—not necessarily managed globally but managed within a global context of cooperation and framework of internationally agreed measures.


Now, i won’t comment to any great extent on the institutions that do this, but it is a great paradox that while the world needs an institutional framework for dealing with issues that the united nations was designed to produce when it emerged from world war ii. It is ironic that we need that system more today than we did then, and yet support for it and understanding of its imperative mission for all of us is at a lower ebb than ever.


And i have to say as—i am a canadian, i regard myself as a north american, one who loves this country. I spend more of my life in this country i think than i do at home. Nevertheless, i don’t vote though i do feel that i pay enough taxes here to have a voice. It’s a friendly voice, but it’s a voice that says that when this great nation applies the rule of law selectively, honors its treaty obligations only selectively, this is not the kind of leadership that is credible for the world’s greatest power. We need the consistent moral as well as political and military leadership of the united states.


We all lose when that leadership lapses from the highest values and traditions that all of us have come to expect of the united states. The united states is always at its best when it lives up to the best of its own traditions and its own constitution.


So all i say is that the united states that leads this world system needs in doing so to apply the best of its own values and traditions. We all want you to do that. You do it more often than you don’t do it, but it is a message that i hope that groups like this, which have such influence in your country, will champion.


Now, the UN needs reforming. I was given the privilege by kofi annan, the secretary general, to help lead the reform process, but there’s a limit. He’s the chief executive; he’s not the shareholder. It is interesting that all the reforms that were under his control he has done. Not perfectly, but they’re all done. Not a single one of the fundamental changes he recommended to governments has in fact been carried out, even by the governments that are always asking for reform. That reform is overdue, it’s necessary, but it can be done only by governments and only by governments who have behind them a body of public opinion that understands the importance of and the need for it.


An indispensable prerequisite to a secure and sustainable future is of course the maintenance of peace in the world. With the demise of the cold war and the emergence of the united states as the only world superpower, the risks of global war have receded. But despite some progress toward nuclear disarmament and even cooperation amongst the main nuclear powers, they continue to maintain and deploy weapons sufficient to destroy life as we know it many times over.


Now other nations, most recently india and pakistan, have developed nuclear weapons, and others, including terrorist groups, have or will soon have access to them. As long as nuclear weapons exist and particularly as they proliferate, we must live with and learn to deal with the prospect that they may be used.


Eventually threatening and in other ways more difficult to contain are the risks of biological warfare or terrorism. We’re talking about the things that can constrain population growth. Of course, warfare has always done that, and risks of war today have receded but they have not disappeared.


But while these weapons of mass destruction continue to threaten that global peace and security, millions of people, particularly in the developing world, are suffering from and dying from local and regional conflicts driven by ethnic, religious, ideological, and economic differences, and conflicts over land and resources. The potential for more such conflicts is escalating as the conditions that produce them continue to deteriorate.



In these conflicts, which mainly take place within nations and often spill over into neighboring countries, civilians are the main victims, and in some cases they are also participants as members of guerrilla forces or militia. In many cases the safest place for a person to be in such a conflict is in the conventional military. It is the civilian populations, especially women, children, the elderly, the young, and the infirm, that are most at risk and experience the greatest losses of life and suffering.



The conditions that give rise to such conflicts are usually deeply embedded in the history structure, the culture, and the prejudices of these societies and cannot be resolved quickly or easily. We need to develop the skills and the attitudes that permit us to do this. Growing population and economic pressures can only increase these vulnerabilities while at the same time constraining the capacities of developing countries to deal with them.


There is now evidence that, as we’ve heard this morning, population growth in many developing countries is beginning to decline, but this is very uneven and it is not likely that the world’s population will stabilize much more before the midpoint of the twenty-first century at a level which—well, guess as you may, but will likely be at least significantly greater than current levels of population.


Today the borders of the world are closing, and new barriers are being erected to the movement of people, particularly the poor and the dispossessed, while the same countries—and here i commend the united states for its continued openness—that deny people the right to immigrate actually try to attract the rich and the privileged and the skilled while keeping the poor and those without skills out.


The more mature industrialized countries are facing the prospect of aging and declining populations’ thus a demographic dilemma of monumental proportions is in the making.


Now, it is paradoxical that the same forces that are driving the need for more cooperation between industrialized and developing countries also contain the seeds of deepening conflict and division that could threaten the prospects for cooperative governance.


A countryman of mine, professor thomas homer dixon, has cited the growing potential for eco-conflicts as a result of competition for land and other resources. At the university for peace, which i have the honor now to head, we’ve developed an ombudsman center to help anticipate, mitigate, and resolve resource-related conflicts.


The explosion of urban growth in developing countries is giving rise to more and more environmental degradation, and the former antipathy of developing countries toward environmental issues has given way to mounting public awareness and political attention. This isn’t because they’ve been listening to the rhetoric of the north; it’s because they are now experiencing these problems themselves and realizing more and more how vitally important they are to their own interests and their own development.


As their development accelerates, developing countries are contributing more and more to the larger global risks such as those of climate change, ozone depletion, degradation of biological resources, and loss or deterioration of arable lands. China—although china has done a better job, despite its economic growth, of reducing its emissions than has the united states or canada—is nevertheless still likely to precede the united states to the dubious honor of becoming number one in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.


But developing countries cannot be denied the right to grow. Neither can they be expected to respond to exhortations to reduce their population growth or adopt stringent environmental controls from those whose patterns of production and consumption have largely given rise to such global risks. Our exhortations do not mean much. In fact, they can often be counterproductive.


Our example is what they follow. They look at what we do today far more than what we say to them.


Indeed—I see my time running out here—I will make one major point that arises from my own experience. stockholm in 1972, at the world’s first global environmental conference, we lost our innocence, in the sense that we finally recognized that some of the same processes of economic growth and urban development that had produced such unprecedented levels of wealth for industrialized societies had also produced inadvertently some negative by-products that threatened everyone.


We, in the years since then, have learned a lot about how to deal with these products. We of course need to know more. We’ve developed technologies that help us to do it. So we’ve lost our innocence. We can no longer pretend that we don’t really know what we’re doing or how to fix it. We largely do.


We also know that solutions work. Solutions have worked in many places. Why is it then that overall, despite progress, the environmental condition of this planet continues to deteriorate? doing a total balance sheet on earth, incorporated, we see that much of what we call growth today is really liquidation of our natural assets, depletion of our natural capital.


Why is it? it’s no longer a problem of implementation; it’s a problem of motivation. What are our motivations? they are economic, of course. Yet a study that the earth council recently did made it very clear that governments both north and south today in just four sectors alone—water, energy, transport, and agriculture—are spending over $700 billion subsidizing activities that are wasteful economically and at the same time provide disincentives to environmental and socially responsible behavior.


They weren’t intended that way. This is the unintended consequence. But it’s happening, and just examining that system, revealing how we are wasting our resources and how that waste is also contributing to undermining our future is one of the best things that we can throw some light on, because if we focus light on things, the chances are that people will do something about them. And i hope that will happen.


Finally, i think ultimately the fate of civilization as we know it will be determined by what happens in the developing world, and this in turn will depend very much on the example we set and the cooperation we extend to it. We in the privileged industrial world must get used to the fact that we are a minority, a powerful and privileged minority to be sure, but one in which the processes of globalization inextricably link us to the interests and to the fate of the majority in the developing world.


Going it alone is simply not an option. We all know historically that minorities do not maintain their privileged positions and power forever, and particularly in a world in which everybody is involved in the same framework of processes that we call globalization.


Here, the U.S. role is absolutely central. Your footprint, your contribution to the good things of the world has not been exceeded by any country. Your contribution today to the risks that i’m talking about is also as you well know the greatest, including that of co2 emissions. I say that in texas, an oil-producing state. I come out of the energy industry myself, including a history in the oil and gas business. So i share that with you.


Finally, i am persuaded that the twenty-first century will be decisive for the human species. For all the evidences of environmental degradation, social tension, and intercommunal conflict have occurred at levels of population and human activity that are a great deal less than they will be in the period ahead. The risks we face in common from mounting dangers to the environment, the resource base, and life support systems on which all life on earth depends are far greater today as we move into the twenty-first century than the risks we face or have ever faced in our conflicts with each other.


A new paradigm of cooperative global governance is the only feasible basis on which we can manage these risks and realize the immense potential for progress and fulfillment for the entire human family that is within our reach. I am an optimist in the sense that i believe a golden era is within our reach. I’m a pessimist in the sense that i still don’t see the signs that we understand what we must do to achieve it.


All people and nations have in the past been willing to accord highest priority to the measures required for their own security. We must now give the same kind of priority to civilizational security. This will take a major shift in the current political mindset. Necessity will compel such a shift eventually. The question is, can we really afford the costs and risks of waiting?


And i commend to you all the earth charter initiative that started in rio but didn’t get completed there but to which millions of people are now looking at for the fundamental ethical and moral basis, our common motivation to provide some guidelines for the future, through the earth charter—in anglo-saxon terms, a magna carta for the earth.


Thank you for the opportunity of joining you. I’m looking forward now to hearing from my distinguished colleagues and do hope there will be some time also to dialogue with you.