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Goodbye sustainable world! Reflections on the European Union’s Sixth Environment Programme

  Earth stands out, as planetary probes have shown, like a beacon in a lifeless, hopeless neighbourhood. Our nearest worlds are Mars and Venus. The Red Planet would be for us an airless refrigerator; Venus a high-pressure cauldron of fiery gas. Can we realistically expect on the planets anything more than scientifically disputable ‘fossilized bacteria’? We shudder to think that we are alone. Yet our survival as a species compels us to work with real facts.

What life we have now is ALL mankind’s stock and assets. Our earth cannot restore our disappearing birds, our pollinating bees and other maligned but vital insects, our poisoned water. Once we drive out one species of animal or our fishermen ‘vacuum clean’ our seas of a favourite fish, we won’t find it ever again. They will go the way of the Dodo. However, we are not just losing a ‘consumable’. We are cutting our own throat by a thousand slashes.

Each extinct species breaks a thread of the complex, interactive net of life, from virus and bacteria to tall mountain forests and mountain eagle. Each species thrives in its living culture or environment, and we require each species. When we try to globalize, like car parts, locally cultured livestock, we should not be surprised by pandemics. Industries and ‘agri-culture’ require different rules. Life involves a much more complex interdependence. We are disrupting the mechanism of our life support system.

Today, according to the European Commission, two out of five European bird species are threatened with extinction. Nearly half of all butterflies may also disappear.

What use is a butterfly?

Nothing, to a society that only consumes. Today even some officials in environmental services have adopted the vocabulary of the Stock Exchange. They talk as if the environment debate is between ‘businessmen’ and ‘consumers’ in civil society. They are wrong. A butterfly plays its own symbiotic part in our complex web of life. It has no voice in the environment debate. Our lack of understanding of its activity and the need other species have of a butterfly does not allow even the most erudite scientist to defend it fully. We are still largely ignorant of the extent of its thread in the planet’s life web.

One species of butterfly can make a return trip of thousands of miles. During the course of a single summer and reproducing several times, its offspring return for wintering to a specific tree in exactly the same, small wood of its origin. Who can judge the market value of this precision navigating system? Some humans get lost in their own town!

What value is the smallest living cell? Before you react too impulsively, reflect that we were all once a single cell! Even now without other ‘independent’ cells we would be dead. Of all the trillions of cells in the human body and essential for its working, only a fifth of them are living cells of our own body! The vast majority are bacteria, bacteriophages and other cells that in balance keep us alive, fed and healthy. No human is an independent structure, entire and complete in itself. Some cells work in the community of cells of our own ‘humanity’; the rest, the vast majority, work in harmony with our flesh. Our first lesson we must apply for our planetary environment: we are vitally dependent on each other and on nature.

Internally, each cell integrates untold numbers of specialized molecular units, more complex than the regulation of a city. They maintain its DNA knowledge centre, produce energy, transport specially-made chemicals, control pollution and eliminate waste. Let us, however, consider smaller, organic chemicals: just the ‘bricks’ of the cell wall. Can we treat them as ‘consumables’? The simpler ones contain tens or hundreds of thousands of chemical elements such as carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen in specific order and form. No known industrial process can synthesize such a basic chemical protein – even resourced with vastly accelerated technologies, a test-tube the size of the earth and a time-scale far beyond that of the universe’s existence! The loss of such a special brick could entail inestimable commercial costs. Such a molecule, just a hundred millionths of a millimetre in size but with its enormous reproductive potential, could be worth more than a large diamond.

What has been the reaction of our political leaders? In launching its sixth Environmental Programme, a high European official was asked to provide one simple phrase to summarize the concept behind it. His answer was ‘sustainable development’.

Alas that is now far, too late. The treasures of our planet cannot now be sustained.

Today for the first time in our recorded history, parts of Europe are becoming a desert. In the North, Europe is becoming drenched with rain, more than ever before. The sea level could rise about a metre over this century. As our planet is heated by industrial waste gases, Europe has experienced its warmest weather in history. Last decade was history’s warmest; 1998 Europe’s warmest recorded year. In that global warming, carbon dioxide is a prime culprit. Klaus Töpfer, head of the United Nation’s Environment Programme, says that carbon dioxide levels are now higher than at any time in the last 420,000 years.

That is the reason we must say ‘Goodbye’ to any idea of sustainable development. We cannot retain the environment as the years pass. Our climate is already on a new journey to God knows where. Not even in the rapacious Roman times did we have deserts in Europe. In those days, North Africa was considered the bread-basket of the Empire. The populations were smaller and the damage they could inflict proportionately less. Some areas recovered. Deforested North Africa never has – not in over a thousand years.

In Roman times the entire world’s population amounted to a quarter of a billion people. It took sixteen centuries to double it. Today our earth supports, in grinding poverty or in contrasting, trivialized opulence, six billion souls. Within the lifetime of a middle-aged European or American, twice the world population of 1900 could be added.

Each additional, demanding mouth requires water, grain, meat and, in the present system, consumer goodies, pressing on our planet extra burdens of waste and pollution. We are on sliding slope. Emergency action is needed: clearer vision, fair, joint decisions.

Töpfer warns that climate change leads to reduced food resources, disease, mass migration, which in turn leads to wars. From such destructive forces areas like Europe, which has had some success in environmental matters through the sense of interdependence of the European Union, cannot escape.

Is there any bright light in such a gloomy canvas of fact? Perhaps. In the human body our 26 trillion cells at birth are coordinated one with another. No one cell ‘knows’ up or down. Yet the nervous system coordinates them in such a way that human beings are capable of action and even complex, abstract theory. Together, the community of our brain cells can be activated to imagine universes beyond what we see. The cells of our body are not at war with each other. Neither should a few billion people turn to conflict and opposition in pursuit of their legitimate interests.

The crux of the environmental problem of the planet, the second lesson we need to apply, is to create a new form of world governance for common decision-making reconciling conflicting interests. How can we urgently arrive at preserving our life forms and environment? World dictatorship? Frustrated Commission officials complain that it is easier to reach environmental decisions with ‘enlightened dictatorships’ like China. But clearly that is no way to deal with our European or planetary future. Few dictatorships are really enlightened or can remain so.

Democracies can be tough. The Hague conference called to try to agree Kyoto targets on greenhouse gases failed not least because of US opposition. President Bush has announced that the USA, one of the world’s richest countries, cannot afford to cut carbon dioxide levels. Americans are not ready. The US economy comes first. When will the world’s mightiest power be ready? When will Russia or Africa?

The European experience has at least provided a better basis for international agreement. Since the foundation of the European Union following the Schuman Declaration of 1950, member states have forged an organic peace unprecedented in all its history. A broad range of citizens’ groups, business interests, industries and academic researchers have started to work – and decide together – on a continent-wide basis. Europeans understand more positively each other’s interests and cultures. What has been a real innovation is European governance. The states of the European Union can make common decisions, better and much more easily.

In the  European system, the decision-making can be made as impartial as governments make possible. It is better than an arbitration system. The crux of the Schuman system lies in its unique means for taking just decisions. One body can only propose governmental decisions; the other with state responsibilities can only make decisions. This allows highly beneficial, non-zero sum solutions to be achieved. (In an intergovernmental system, one state can play the prima donna to blackmail or block common decisions. The classical federal system, like the USA, is prone to its own distortions of immoderate financial and industrial lobbying.) This new concept of community governance has allowed Europe to be an example at the forefront of the environmental challenge.

Where there is a scientific consensus but one state is hostage to excessive internal, political lobbying, industries or trades unions, ideological myopia or even corrupt practice, a majority decision by 15 governments has a means to restore impartial judgement. When the European Community does this, it acts like certain ‘independent’ organs in the human body that regulate each other.

One country cannot hold all the others to hostage as at The Hague. The Community example demonstrates a vast improvement on the United Nations system. The more efficient and just  European model should be introduced worldwide. Like the cells of the human body, individual freedom is preserved but the community of interests and responsibilities is fairly and healthfully advanced. Such a new form of all-inclusive governance is urgently needed to value and cost man’s interactions. And then make decisions about our planet’s heritage.

‘Europe must become a guide for humanity,’ Robert Schuman told Prof. Jean-Marie Pelt head of the European Ecology Institute. Europe proves that a strategic vision of peace can conciliate seemingly opposing interests. The missing chapter of the European Union’s environment programme is how to expand Europe’s environmental governance to the planet. Our world, your life, depends on it.


European Commission: Environment 2010: Our future, Our choice (COM 2001/31 final)

David Heilbron Price runs the independent Schuman Project and the website His numerous publications on the life, philosophy and work of Robert Schuman include: ‘Russia and the danger for the European Union’, ‘Schuman and the Yugoslav crisis’ and ‘Robert Schuman: trail-blazer for world peace.’
                                          © David Heilbron Price 0403 2001
                       Published in: European Voice, 19 April 2001

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