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The terms of the present ecological debate

This post is also available in: Spanish, Portuguese (Brazil)

By Leonardo Boff

Rio+20 has provoked a wide debate about ecological issues. Since not everyone understands the technical terms of the debate, we are publishing an article by the best known ecologist of the State of Rio, Arthur Soffiati, of Campos de Goytacazes, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, founder of the Centro Norte Fluminense for the Conservation of Nature, published on May 14, 2012 in Rio de Janeiro’s La Folha da Manhã. These are the principal terms: sustainable eco-development, green economy, ecological footprint, and anthropocenic.

Some 11,000 years ago, the temperature of the Earth began to increase naturally, causing the progressive thawing of the last glaciation. Most of this water, as it passed from solid to liquid, raised the sea levels, separating the continental masses, forming islands, fostering the formation of forest and jungles and other ecosystems. Scientists named this new phase “Holocene.”

In the last 11,000 years, of the Hominids, there remained only Homo sapiens, who turned himself into the sovereign of the whole planet. With a well developed brain, which was challenged by the new climatic conditions, he domesticated plants and animals, invented farming, created technologies to polish the rock, invented the wheel, the loom and metallurgy. Then he built cities, empires, dams, and drainage and irrigation systems. Several civilizations exceeded the limitations of the ecosystems where they were built, causing environmental crises that contributed to their demise.

Enter, then, the concept of ecological footprint. It refers to the degree of ecological impact produced by an individual, an activity, an economy, a society. The ecological footprint of the civilizations before Western civilization always had a regional character, which was sometimes reversible and sometimes not. Western civilization wore the heaviest boots to date. This pressure began with capitalism, that transformed the world.

Starting in the XV century, Western (read European) civilization left a profound mark, through maritime expansion. It imposed its culture on other sectors of the planet. The world became Westernized, and began trampling the environment as well.

Another great transformation followed the industrial revolution, which originated in XVIII century England, and was expanded throughout the world, which it divided into industrialized countries and those that exported raw materials. From there, another planetary reality began to be develop, with the gaseous emissions that drive global warming, devastating jungles and impoverishing Earth’s biodiversity, with the unwise use of the soil, widespread urbanization, profound alterations in the cycles of nitrogen and phosphorous, contamination of drinking water, weakening of the ozone layer, excessive extraction of non-renewable natural resources, and simultaneously, production of unprecedented quantities of garbage.

Scientists are showing that within the Holocene (holos = whole + koinos = new), collective human action through capitalism and socialism have provoked an environmental crisis that is unprecedented in the history of the Earth, because it has been created by a single species. They have denominated the phase of the post industrial revolution of the XVIII century, Anthropocene, or, a geologic period caused by the collective action of the human being (antropos = man + koinos = new).

Given this great crisis and this new epoch, the United Nations is promoting huge international conferences, such as the Conferences of Stockholm (1972), Rio-92 and now Rio+20. The objective is to solve the Anthropocene problems, be it by harmonizing economic development and environmental protection, or by seeking other forms of development. Rio-92 adopted the formula of sustainable development, which has acquired different meanings, some of which even contradict the original.

The Rio+20 Conference hopes to establish the equality of the environmental, social and economic dimensions. The magic phrase now is green economy, the meaning of which is unclear. It is supposed that, as a minimum, it means the progressive substitution of renewable sources of energy for carbon-intensive ones, and renewable resources for non-renewable ones.

Río+20 showed that the industrialized countries do not want to abdicate their position; the emerging countries want to catch up with the industrialized ones, and the poor countries want to emerge. As long as there is no appreciation of the limits of the planet, it is useless to think of social justice and economic development. Thus the environment is more important than social aspects or the economy, because without the environment it is not possible to find solutions for the other two. Rather, the concept of eco-development seems to be more correct as a tactic and as a strategy.