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Seminar 9

“Future of Planet Earth” Participant Statement

Paris, France | June 3–5, 2008

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Raman Sukumar

What are the three most critical challenges facing Planet Earth going forward?

Modern humans (Homo sapiens) have been on Planet Earth for a miniscule proportion of the time that life has existed on this planet. Yet, in this brief moment humans have transformed the face of this planet far more profoundly than any other living form has done in comparable time. Contrary to popular belief, human transformation of the Earth did not necessarily begin after the Industrial Revolution; in fact, it goes back in evolutionary time to hominids who acquired the ability to make and control fire. Large landscapes or indeed entire continents (e.g., Australia) have been transformed by human action since ancient times. The problem since the Industrial Revolution has been the unprecedented consumption of the Earth’s resources that now threatens the well-being of all living creatures including humans.

1. Overconsumption of natural resources and continuing population growth.
It is well recognized that profligate consumption of the Earth’s natural resources combined with continued high human population growth in many countries or regions are two sides of the coin of environmental degradation. Statistics on the relative consumption patterns between, say, USA and Bangladesh have been repeated so many times that it is not necessary to quote these again. It is often assumed that increased consumption results in higher standards of living but what is not appreciated is that this is not a linear relationship. Europe enjoys a standard of living comparable to or exceeding that of USA in most respects while consuming only half as much resources per capita. The total consumption of resources at present is clearly not sustainable by any means – witness the looming specter of anthropogenic climate change impacts on the biosphere and societies. Over four-fifths of the population growth occurring now is in Asia, Africa, and South America. The growing legitimate aspirations of greater prosperity of the large populations of countries such as China and India are bound to further strain the sustainable capacity of the Earth, as would the aspirations of people in other developing countries in the future. Slowing of population growth in modern times has followed material well-being, and it would be in everyone’s interests for the poorer nations go through the so-called “demographic transition” as early as possible.

2. Rising economic inequity.
In spite of rising wealth and living standards in many developed and developing countries, there is also growing disparity between the rich and the poor not just across nations (particularly when developed and emerging economies are compared with sub-Saharan Africa) but also within major nations (within the USA or China and India). For instance, economic disparity in India had generally been declining until the mid-1980s but with the strong economic growth beginning in the 1990s this has again widened to the levels seen during the mid-1950s. This has the potential to cause serious disruptions to the stable functioning of societies; indeed this is already happening in India with the rise of extremist movements.

3. Changes in social, cultural, and ethical value systems.
At the core of the environmental crisis today are human behaviour and the social, cultural, and ethical values systems with regard to the natural world. For millennia many human societies rooted in aboriginal traditions or religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Shinto generally maintained a balance with their resources, or at least did not threaten the global health of the planet. With the transition to industrial/technological societies the traditional value systems are rapidly changing. Globalization of a materialistic culture has the potential to unleash a new wave of unsustainable consumption of the Earth’s natural resources.