The Danish Peace Academy
Towards A Sustainable Global Society
John Avery, H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen
From empty-world economics to full-world economics
Both the classical and neo-classical economists have pictured the world as largely empty of human activities. According to the empty-world picture of economics, the limiting factor in the production of food and goods is the shortage of human capital and labour. The land, forests, fossil fuels, minerals, oceans filled with fish, and other natural resources upon which human labor and capital operate, are assumed to be present in such large quantities that they are not limiting factors. In this picture, there is no naturally-determined upper limit to the total size of the human ecomomy. It can continue to grow as long as new capital is accumulated, as long as new labour is provided by population growth, and as long as new technology replaces labour by automation.
Biology, on the other hand, presents us with a very dierent picture. Biologists remind us that if any species, including our own, makes demands on its environment which exceed the environment’s carrying capacity, the result is a catastrophic collapse both of the environment and of the population which it supports. Only demands which are within the carrying capacity are sustainable. For example, there is a limit to regenerative powers of a forest. It is possible to continue to cut trees in excess of this limit, but only at the cost of a loss of forest size, and ultimately the collapse and degradation of the forest. Similarly, cattle populations may for some time exceed the carrying capacity of grasslands, but the ultimate penalty will be degradation or desertification of the land.
There is much evidence indicating that the total size of the human economy is very rapidly approaching the absolute limits imposed by the carrying capacity of the global environment. For example, a recent study by Vitousek et al. showed that 40 percent of the net primary product of landbased photosynthesis is appropriated, directly or indirectly, for human use.
Population and food supply
In 1930, the population of the world reached two billion; in 1958 three billion; in 1974 four billion; and in 1988 five billion. Today, more than 90 million people are being added to the world’s population every year. United Nations experts believe that by the year 2100, the population of the earth will have stabilized at between 10 and 15 billion - roughly double or triple today’s population - most of the increase having been added to the less-developed parts of the world. An analysis of the global ratio of population to cropland shows that we may already have exceeded the sustainable limit of population through our dependence on petroleum: Between 1950 and 1982, the use of cheap petroleum-derived fertilizers increased by a factor of 8, and much our present agricultural output depends their use. Furthermore, petroleumderived synthetic fibers have reduced the amount of cropland needed for growing natural fibers, and petroleum-driven tractors have replaced draft animals which required cropland for pasturage. Also, petroleum fuels have replaced fuelwood and other fuels derived for biomass. The reverse transition, from fossil fuels back to renewable energy sources, will require a considerable diversion of land from food production to energy production. For example, 1.1 hectares are needed to grow the sugarcane required for each alcohol-driven Brazilian automobile. This figure may be compared with the steadily falling average area of cropland available to each person in the world - .24 hectares in 1950, .16 hectares in 1982.
As population increases, the cropland per person will continue to fall, and we will be forced to make still heavier use of fertilizers to increase output per hectare. Also marginal land will be used in agriculture, with the probable result that much land will be degraded through erosion and salination. Reserves of oil are likely to be exhausted by the middle of next century. Thus there is a danger that just as global population reaches the unprecedented level of 10 billion or more, the agricultural base for supporting it may suddenly collapse. The resulting ecological catastrophe, possibly compounded by war and other disorders, could produce famine and death on a scale unprecedented in history - a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions, involving billions rather than millions of people. The present tragic famine in Africa is to this possible future disaster what Hiroshima is to the threat of thermonuclear war - a tragedy of smaller scale, whose horrors should be sufficient, if we are wise, to make us take steps to avoid the larger catastrophe.
Growth of cities
The global rate of population growth has slowed from 2.0 percent per year in 1972 to 1.7 percent per year in 1987; and one can hope that it will continue to fall. However, it is still very high in most developing countries. For example, in Kenya, the population growth rate is 4.0 percent per year, which means that the population of Kenya will double in seventeen years.
Because of increasing mechanization of agriculture, the extra millions added to the populations of developing countries are unable to find work on the land. They have no alternative except migration to overcrowded cities, where the infrastructure is unable to cope with so many new arrivals. Often the new migrants are forced to live in excrement-filled makeshift slums, where dysentery, hepatitis and typhoid are endemic, and where the conditions for human life sink to the lowest imaginable level.
During the 60 years between 1920 and 1980 the urban population of the developing countries increased by a factor of 10, from 100 million to almost a billion. In 1950, the population of Sao Paulo in Brazil was 2.7 million. By 1980, it had grown to 12.6 million; and it is expected to reach 24.0 million by the year 2000. Mexico City too has grown explosively to an unmanageable size. In 1950, the population of Mexico City was 3.05 million; in 1982 it was 16.0 million; and the projected population for 2000 is 26.3 million.
A similar explosive growth of cities can be seen in Africa and in Asia. In 1968, Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, and Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, were both growing at the rate of 14 percent per year, doubling in size every 5 years. In 1950, Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, had a population of 0.14 million. By 2000, it is expected to reach 5.3 million, having increased by a factor of almost 40.
In 1972, the population of Calcutta was 7.5 million, and it is expected to almost double in size by the turn of the century. This growth will produce a tragic increase in the poverty and pollution from which Calcutta already suers. The Hoogly estuary near Calcutta is already choked with untreated industrial waste and sewage, and sixty percent of Calcutta’s population already suer from respiratory diseases related to air pollution.
Governments in the third world, struggling to provide clean water, sanitation, roads, schools, medical help and jobs for all their citizens, are defeated by rapidly growing urban populations. Often the makeshift shantytowns inhabited by new arrivals have no piped water; or when water systems exist, the pressures may be so low that sewage seeps into the system.
Many homeless children, left to fend for themselves, sleep and forage in the streets of third world cities. These conditions have tended to become worse with time rather than better. Whatever gains governments can make are immediately canceled by growing populations.
Advanced medical techniques transferred from industrialized countries to the third world have quickly lowered death rates without aecting basic social structures and traditions. The result has been overpopulation and poverty.
For example, in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), the death rate fell sharply, from 22 per thousand in 1945 to 10 per thousand in 1954, largely as the result of an antimalarial program. However, social customs remained the same: Girls continued to be married very early; and they continued to give their husbands large numbers of children, just as they had done when the death rate was high. The result was a population explosion which has produced almost as much suering as the malaria which it replaced.
Rapidly-growing populations are both the cause and the effect of poverty:
As we have seen, a rapidly-growing population makes economic development difficult or impossible. Furthermore, in an educated, prosperous, urban population, where women have high social status and jobs outside the home, the birth rate tends to be low. For example, in Denmark, each woman has, on the average, fewer than two children during her lifetime.
A recent study (conducted by Robert J. Lapham of the Demographic and Health Surveys and by W. Parker Mauldin of the Rockefeller Foundation) has shown that the use of birth control is correlated both with socio-economic setting and with the existence of strong family-planning programs. For example, in countries like Yemen, Burundi, Chad, Guinea, Malawi, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, where family-planning programs are weak or absent, only 1 percent of couples use birth control.
In Paraguay, where the socio-economic setting is high, but where a familyplanning program is absent, 36 percent of couples use birth control. In Indonesia, with a lower-middle socio-economic setting but a strong governmentsupported family-planning program, the percentage is 48. Finally, in Hong Kong, which has both a relatively high socio-economic status and a strong family-planning program, 80 percent of all couples use birth control. China, the world’s most populous nation, has adopted the policy of allowing only one child per family. This policy has, until now, been most eective in towns and cities, but with time it may also become eective in rural areas.
Like other developing nations, China has a very young population, which will continue to grow even when fertility falls below the replacement level (because so many of its members will be contributing to the birth rate rather than to the death rate). China’s present population is between 1.1 and 1.2 billion. Its projected population for the year 2025 is 1.5 billion. Recent statistics show that the world can be divided into two demographic regions of roughly equal population. In the first region, which includes North America, Europe, the former Soviet Union, Australia, New Zealand and Eastern Asia, populations have completed or are completing the demographic transition from the old equilibrium where high birth rates were balanced by a high death rate to a new equilibrium with low birth rates balanced by a low death rate. In the second region, which includes Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and Africa, populations seem to be caught in a demographic trap, where high birth rates and low death rates lead to population growth so rapid that the development which could have slowed population growth is impossible. The average population increase in the slow growth regions is 0.8% per year, with a range between 0.2% (Western Europe) and 1.0% (Eastern Asia). In the rapid growth regions, the average increase is 2.5% per year, with a range between 2.2% (Southeast Asia) and 2.8% (Africa). Thus there is a very marked division of the world into two demographic regions, and there seems to be no middle ground. Some individual countries in the rapid growth regions (such as Argentina, Cuba and Uruguay in Latin America) have completed or are completing the demographic transition, but their numbers are too small to influence the regional trends.
For countries caught in the demographic trap, government birth control programs are especially important, because one cannot rely on improved social conditions to slow birth rates. Since health and lowered birth rates should be linked, it is appropriate that family-planning should be an important part of programs for public health and economic development. In 1977, the World Health Organization resolved that during the coming decades its goal should be “the attainment by all citizens of the world by the year 2000 of a level of health that will permit them to lead a socially and economically productive life”. Halfdan Mahler, who was then the Director General of the World Health Organization, has expressed the relationship between health, development and family planning in the following words:
“Country after country has seen painfully achieved increases in total output, food production, health and educational facilities and employment opportunities reduced or nullified by excessive population growth. Most underdeveloped countries therefore seek to limit their population growth.”
“The lesson of recent years is that virtually wherever health-care facilities have been made available, women have demanded information and the necessary materials for spacing their children and limiting their families.” It is obvious that on a finite earth, population cannot continue to grow indefinitely because of limits imposed by the food supply and because of limits to the ability of the environment to tolerate pollution. Exponential growth, where the population doubles in size every generation or every few generations, has brought us near to these limits with surprising rapidity. It is characteristic of exponential growth that one is surprised by the sudden approach of the limits, because one moves from a situation of plenty to one of scarcity in a single doubling time.
As we have seen above, global population will soon exceed the carrying capacity of the environment. Economic growth will encounter the same limit, as well as limits imposed by the depletion of non-renewable resources. Our failure to see this fact clearly is probably due to our unwillingness to look more than a few years ahead. We say to ourselves, “What happens fifty years from now is not our worry”. However we owe it to our children to try look as far as possible into the future, since “we did not inherit the earth from our parents; we borrowed it from our children”.
The total ultimately recoverable resources of fossil fuels amount to roughly 7300 terawatt-years of energy. 1 Of this total amount, 6700 TWy is coal, while oil and natural gas each constitute roughly 300 TWy. 2 In 1890, global consumption of energy was 1 terawatt, but by 1990 this figure had grown to 13.2 TW, distributed as follows: oil, 4.6; coal, 3.2; natural gas, 2.4; hydropower, 0.8; nuclear, 0.7; fuelwood, 0.9; crop wastes, 0.4; and dung, 0.2. Thus, if we continue to use oil at the 1990 rate, it will last for 65 years, while natural gas will last for twice that long. The reserves of coal are much larger; and used at the 1990 rate, coal would last for 2000 years. However, it seems likely that as oil and natural gas become depleted, coal will be converted to liquid and gaseous fuels, and its rate of use will increase. Also, the total global energy consumption is likely to increase because of increasing population and rising standards of living in the developing countries.
It is easy to calculate that a global population of 10 billion, using oil and energy at the same rate as present-day Americans, could exhaust the world’s supply of petroleum in seven years, and could burn all of the world’s remaining reserves of fossil fuels in only 60 years, meanwhile producing a catastrophic change in the earth’s climate through the release of greenhouse gases. It may be just as difficult for the developed countries to abandon their habit of encouraging economic growth as it will be for the developing countries to abandon their habit of encouraging large families; but both these changes of attitude are necessary for the future of our planet.
The burning of coal and oil, and the burning of tropical rain forests, release so much carbon dioxide that its atmospheric concentration has increased from 290 parts per million in 1860 to 347 parts per million in 1985. At present 6 billion tons of carbon are released into the atmosphere every year by human activities; and if this continued at the same rate, the CO2 concentration will reach 550 ppm by the end of the 21st century (double the preindustrial concentration) with a resulting global warming of between 3 and 5 degrees Centigrade. Although the exact climatic consequences of this warming are difficult to predict, there is a fear that some areas of the world which are now able to produce and export large quantities of grain may become arid. Global warming of between 3 and 5 degrees Centigrade would also produce a rise in sea level of between 1 and 2 meters (because of the expansion of the water in the oceans and because of melting of the polar ice caps) with a resulting loss of fertile cropland in lowlying regions of the world. Thus, both because of limited reserves and because of the greenhouse eect, we will be forced to replace fossil fuels by renewable energy sources. The industrialized countries use much more than their fair share of global resources. For example, with only a quarter of world’s population they use more than two thirds of its energy; and in the U.S.A. and Canada the average per capita energy consumption is 12 kilowatts, compared with 0.1 kilowatts in Bangladesh. If we are to avoid severe damage to the global environment, the industrialized countries must rethink some of their economic ideas, especially the assumption that growth can continue forever.
The present use of resources by the industrialized countries is extremely wasteful. A growing national economy must, at some point, exceed the real needs of the citizens. It has been the habit of the developed countries to create artificial needs by means of advertising, in order to allow economies to grow even beyond the point where all real needs have been met; but this extra growth is wasteful, and in the future it will be important not to waste the earth’s diminishing supply of non-renewable resources.
Thus, the times in which we live present a challenge: We need a revolution in economic thought. We must develop a new form of economics, taking into account the realities of the world’s present situation - an economics based on real needs and on a sustainable equilibrium with the environment, not on the thoughtless assumption that growth can continue forever.
The resources of the earth and the techniques of modern science can support a global population of moderate size in comfort and security; but the optimum size is undoubtedly much smaller than the world’s present population.
Given a sufficiently small global population, renewable sources of energy can be found to replace disappearing fossil fuels. These include solar energy, wind energy, geothermal energy, hydroelectric power, and energy derived from biomass.
Technology may also be able to find renewable substitutes for many disappearing mineral resources for a global population of a moderate size. What technology cannot do, however, is to give a global population of 10 billion people the standard of living which the industrialized countries enjoy today.
Like a speeding truck headed for a brick wall, the earth’s rapidly growing human population and its growing economic activity are headed for a collision with a very solid barrier - the carrying capacity of the environment. As in the case of the truck and the wall, the correct response is to apply the brakes in good time.
A global population of 10 billion people using energy at the present U.S.and Canadian rate would produce catastrophic environmental degradation; and for the developed countries to continue to use resources at the present rate while denying this privilege to the rest of the world would produce dangerous political tensions. The environmental crisis thus involves not only the problems of depletion of non-renewable resources, loss of cropland through erosion and salination, poisoning of the environment through fossil fuel emissions, destruction of forests through acid rain, eutrophication of rivers and lakes, threatened climatic change from the release of greenhouse gases, and a rate of extinction of species thousands of times the normal background rate. The crisis also involves problems of social injustice - a quarter of the world’s population using almost three-fourths of its resources, and dying from overeating, overdrinking and oversmoking, while the remaining three quarters of humankind lives in near-poverty or absolute poverty, lacking safe water and sanitation, lacking elementary education and primary health care, with fourteen million children dying every year from diseases, most of which are preventable by simple means, such as vaccination, rehydration therapy and proper nutrition.
In June, 1992, 35000 people from 172 countries met at Rio de Janero in Brazil for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. They included 118 heads of state or heads of governments, and before the meeting there were high hopes for international agreement on a new and equitable world order and for agreements which would address critical environmental problems. However, although some progress was made, the results of the meeting were disappointing because discussion of the two most important problems, overconsumption in the industrialized countries and the population explosion in the developing countries, was blocked respectively by the North and the South.
To avoid a North-South confrontation like that which blunted the eectiveness of the Rio meeting, a compromise is needed: Through a combination of increased energy efficiency and a more modest lifestyle (especially more modest transportation requirements) we should aim at a global society where both the developed and developing countries reach the same per capita energy consumption of between 1.5 and 3 kilowatts per person. This rate of energy consumption is near to the present global average. It is, however, considerably less than the present U.S. and Canadian level of 12 kilowatts per person and very much greater than the present figure for Bangladesh - 0.1 kilowatts per person!
The developed world must reduce its consumption of fossil fuels and other resources while aiming at a life which would have a high quality in other respects than purely material ones. The developing world should find its own way forward to the future, not imitating the wasteful and unsustainable lifestyle of the west, but evolving a way of life which is high in quality but low in resource consumption.
A more modest life-style need not be unpleasant. What is needed is a change in our system of values. We should recognize that a high quality of life is not synonymous with a high level of consumption. For example, the quality of life in our cities would be improved by a shift from private cars to bicycles and public transport, and this would at the same time reduce our consumption of energy. A less hectic and consumption-oriented life-style would also give us more leasure to enjoy our families.
In today’s world, power and material goods are valued more highly than they deserve to be. “Civilized” life often degenerates into a struggle of all against all for power and possessions. However, the industrial complex on which the production of goods depends cannot be made to run faster and faster indefinitely, because we will soon encounter shortages of energy and raw materials.
Looking ahead to the distant future, we can hope that the values of society will change, and that nonmaterial human qualities, such as kindness, politeness, knowledge, and musical, artistic or literary ability, will come to be valued more highly, and that people will derive a larger part of their pleasure from the appreciation of unspoiled nature.
Our power-worshiping industrial society can perhaps learn from the values of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who lived in harmony with nature. We are now so numerous that we cannot return to a primitive way of life; but we can learn to respect nature as our ancestors did. Harmony is a better ideal than power. We must learn to live in harmony with other humans and with other species. We must learn to care for the earth.
What are the necessary steps towards sustainability? The Worldwatch Institute, Washington D.C., lists the following: 1. Stabilizing population; 2. Shifting to renewable energy; 3. Increasing energy efficiency 4. Recycling resources; 5. Reforestation; 6. Soil conservation. 3 All of these measures are labor-intensive, and they can therefore help us to solve the problem of technological unemployment. Especially the shift to renewable energy sources will be an enormous, labor-intensive task.
The transition from fossil fuel use (at present 77 percent of total energy consumption) to renewable energy sources should begin immediately. This transition will be difficult and time-consuming because of the immense capital investment in our present energy-production system - roughly 8 trillion dollars - and because of the long lifetimes of installations - typically 40 years.
Renewable energy sources include wind energy, hydroelectric power, energy from tides, geothermal energy, biomass and solar energy. Power from nuclear fission is not renewable, since uranium is needed for fuel. Furthermore, widespread use of fission for power generation would carry a severe danger of nuclear weapon proliferation because plutonium is produced as a byproduct. Fusion does not have these drawbacks, but it is difficult to predict when or whether it will become an economically viable energy source. Several forms of renewable energy technology have reached or are nearing the stage where they can compete in price with fossil fuels. For example, in Brazil a highly efficient technology has been developed for producing ethanol from sugar cane. Anhydrous ethanol is combined with 20% gasoline and used as a motor fuel. In 1981, Brazil produced 4 billion liters of ethanol for fuel at costs as low as 18.5 U.S. cents per liter. Vehicles driven on the ethanol-gasoline mixture produce very little local pollution, and no net CO2 is released into the atmosphere by the burning of ethanol derived from photosynthesis.
Another promising renewable energy technology uses thermal or photovoltaic solar energy devices to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. It is estimated that solar installations covering 500,000 square kilometers (2% of the world’s desert area) could produce hydrogen equivalent to the world’s total fossil fuel consumption. The hydrogen would then be compressed and distributed by pipeline to centers of population and industry. Fuel cell technologies are being developed for the direct conversion of hydrogen’s energy into electricity. In one design, H2 molecules are converted to H+ ions and free electrons at a permeable anode. The electrons flow through an external circuit, providing power. Meanwhile, the H+ ions migrate through a 3Lester R. Brown and Pamela Shaw, Worldwatch Paper 48, March 1982. phosphoric acid solution to the cathode, where they combine with the electrons and molecular oxygen, producing steam. If the energy of the steam is utilized, the efficiency of such fuel cells can be as high as 60%.
The need for a system of international law
It is extremely important that research funds be used to develop renewable energy sources and to solve other urgent problems now facing humankind, rather than for developing new and more dangerous weapons systems. In spite of the end of the Cold War, the world still spends more than a trillion U.S. dollars per year on armaments. At present, more than 40 percent of all research funds are used for projects related to the arms industry.
Since the Second World War, there have been over 150 armed conflicts; and on any given day, there are an average of 12 wars somewhere in the world.
While in earlier epochs it may have been possible to confine the eects of war mainly to combatants, in recent decades the victims of war have increasingly been civilians, and especially children.
Civilian casualties often occur through malnutrition and through diseases which would be preventable in normal circumstances. Because of the social disruption caused by war, normal supplies of food, safe water and medicine are interrupted, so that populations become vulnerable to famine and epidemics. In the event of a nuclear war, starvation and disease would add greatly to the loss of life caused by the direct eects of nuclear weapons.
The indirect eects of war and the threat of war are also enormous. For example, the World Health Organization lacks funds to carry through an antimalarial programme on as large a scale as would be desirable; but the entire programme could be financed for less than the world spends on armaments in a single day. Five hours of world arms’ spending is equivalent to the total cost of the 20-year WHO programme which resulted, in 1979, in the eradication of smallpox. With a diversion of funds consumed by three weeks of the military expenditures, the world could create a sanitary water supply for all its people, thus eliminating the cause of more than half of all human illness.
It is often said that we are economically dependent on war-related industries; but if this is so, it is a most unhealthy dependence, analogous to drug-dependence or alcoholism. From a purely economic point of view, it is clearly better to invest in education, roads, railways, reforestation, retooling of factories, development of disease-resistant high-yield wheat varieties, industrial research, research on utilization of solar and geothermal energy, and other elements of future-oriented economic infrastructure, rather than building enormously costly warplanes and other weapons. At worst, the weapons will contribute to the destruction of civilization. At best, they will become obsolete in a few years and will be scrapped. By contrast, investment in future-oriented infrastructure can be expected to yield economic benefits over a long period of time.
It is instructive to consider the example of Japan and of Germany, whose military expenditures were severely restricted after World War II. The impressive post-war development of these two nations can very probably be attributed to the restrictions on military spending which were imposed on them by the peace treaty.
As bad as conventional arms and conventional weapons may be, it is the possibility of a nuclear war that still poses the greatest threat to humanity. One argument that has been used in favour of nuclear weapons is that no sane political leader would employ them. However, the concept of deterrence ignores the possibility of war by accident or miscalculation, a danger that has been increased by nuclear proliferation and by the use of computers with very quick reaction times to control weapons systems.
With the end of the Cold War, the danger of a nuclear war between superpowers has faded; but because of nuclear proliferation, there is still a danger of such a war in the Middle East or in the India-Pakistan dispute, as well as the danger of nuclear blackmail by terrorists or political fanatics. Recent nuclear power plant accidents remind us that accidents frequently happen through human and technical failure, even for systems which are considered to be very “safe”. We must also remember the time scale of the problem. To assure the future of humanity, nuclear catastrophe must be avoided year after year and decade after decade. In the long run, the safety of civilization cannot be achieved except by the abolition of nuclear weapons, and ultimately the abolition of the institution of war.
In the long run, because of the terrible weapons which have been produced through the misuse of science, and because of the even more destructive weapons which are likely to be devised in the future, the only way that we can insure the survival of civilization is to abolish war as an institution. It seems likely that achievement of this goal will require revision and strengthening of the United Nations Charter. The Charter should not be thought of as cast in concrete for all time. It needs instead to grow with the requirements of our increasingly interdependent global society. We should remember that the Charter was drafted and signed before the first nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima; and it also could not anticipate the extraordinary development of international trade and communication which characterizes the world today. Among the weaknesses of the present U.N. Charter is the fact that it does not give the United Nations the power to make laws which are binding on individuals. At present, in international law, we treat nations as though they were persons: We punish entire nations by sanctions when the law is broken, even when only the leaders are guilty, even though the burdens of the sanctions fall most heavily on the poorest and least guilty of the citizens, and even though sanctions often have the eect of uniting the citizens of a country behind the guilty leaders. To be eective, the United Nations needs a legislature with the power to make laws which are binding on individuals, and the power to to arrest individual political leaders for flagrant violations of international law.
Another weakness of the present United Nations Charter is the principle of “one nation one vote” in the General Assembly. This principle seems to establish equality between nations, but in fact it is very unfair: For example it gives a citizen of China or India less than a thousandth the voting power of a citizen of Malta or Iceland. A reform of the voting system is clearly needed.
The present United Nations Charter contains guarantees of human rights, but there is no eective mechanism for enforcing these guarantees. In fact there is a conflict between the parts of the Charter protecting human rights and the concept of absolute national sovereignty. Recent history has given us many examples of atrocities committed against ethnic minorities by leaders of nation-states, who claim that sovereignty gives them the right to run their internal aairs as they wish, free from outside interference.
One feels that it ought to be the responsibility of the international community to prevent gross violations of human rights, such as the use of poison gas against civilians (to mention only one of the more recent political crimes); and if this is in conflict with the notion of absolute national sovereignty, then sovereignty must yield. In fact, the concept of the absolutely sovereign nation-state as the the supreme political entity is already being eroded by the overriding need for international law. Recently, for example, the Parlia- ment of Great Britain, one of the oldest national parliaments, acknowledged that laws made by the European Community take precedence over English common law.
Today the development of technology has made global communication almost instantaneous. We sit in our living rooms and watch, via satellite, events taking place on the opposite side of the globe. Likewise the growth of world trade has brought distant countries into close economic contact with each other: Financial tremors in Tokyo can shake New York. The impact of contemporary science and technology on transportation and communication has eectively abolished distance in relations between nations. This close contact and interdependence will increasingly require eective international law to prevent conflicts. However, the need for international law must be balanced against the desirability of local self-government. Like biological diversity, the cultural diversity of humankind is a treasure to be carefully guarded. A balance or compromise between these two desirable goals could be achieved by granting only a few carefully chosen powers to a strengthened United Nations with sovereignty over all other issues retained by the member states.
The United Nations has a number of agencies, such as the World Health Organization, the Food and Agricultural Organization, and UNESCO, whose global services give the UN considerable prestige and de facto power. The eectiveness of the UN as a global authority could be further increased by giving these agencies much larger budgets. In order to do this, and at the same time to promote the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, it has been proposed that the UN be given the power to tax CO2 emissions.
The amount of money which could thus be made available for constructive purposes is very large; and a slight increase in the prices of fossil fuels could make a number of renewable energy technologies economically competitive. The task of building a global political system which is in harmony with modern science will require our best eorts, but it is not impossible. We can perhaps gain the courage needed for this task by thinking of the history of slavery. The institution of slavery was a part of human culture for so long that it was considered to be an inevitable consequence of human nature; but today slavery has been abolished almost everywhere in the world. The example of the dedicated men and women who worked to abolish slavery can give us courage to approach the even more important task which faces us today - the abolition of war.
Ethics in a technological age
Modern science has, for the first time in history, oered humankind the possibility of a life of comfort, free from hunger and cold, and free from the constant threat of death through infectious disease. At the same time, science has given humans the power to obliterate their civilization with nuclear weapons, or to make the earth uninhabitable through overpopulation and pollution. The question of which of these paths we choose is literally a matter of life or death for ourselves and our children.
Will we use the discoveries of modern science constructively, and thus choose the path leading towards life? Or will we use science to produce more and more lethal weapons, which sooner or later, through a technical or human failure, may result in a catastrophic nuclear war? Will we thoughtlessly destroy our beautiful planet through unlimited growth of population and industry? The choice between these alternatives is ours to make, and it is an ethical choice.
Ethical considerations have traditionally been excluded from scientific discussions. This tradition perhaps has its roots in the desire of the scientific community to avoid the bitter religious controversies which divided Europe following the Reformation. Whatever the historical reason may be, it has certainly become customary to speak of scientific problems in a dehumanized language, as though science had nothing to do with ethics or politics.
The great power of science is derived from an enormous concentration of attention and resources on the understanding of a tiny fragment of nature; but this concentration is at the same time a distortion of values. To be eective, a scientist must believe, at least temporarily, that the problem on which he or she is working is more important than anything else in the world, which is of course untrue. Thus a scientist, while seeing a fragment of reality better than anyone else, becomes blind to the larger whole. For example, when one looks into a microscope, one sees the tiny scene on the slide in tremendous detail, but that is all one sees. The remainder of the universe is blotted out by this concentration of attention.
The system of rewards and punishments in the training of scientists produces researchers who are highly competent when it comes to finding solutions to technical problems, but whose training has by no means encouraged them to think about the ethical or political consequences of their work.
Scientists may, in fact, be tempted to escape from the intractable moral and political difficulties of the world by immersing themselves in their work. Enrico Fermi, (whose research as much as that of any other person made nuclear weapons possible), spoke of science as “soma” - the escapist drug of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Fermi perhaps used his scientific preoccupations as an escape from the worrying political problems of the ’30’s and ’40’s.
The education of a scientist often produces a person with a strong feeling of loyalty to a particular research discipline, but perhaps without sufficient concern for the way in which progress in that discipline is related to the general welfare of humankind. To remedy this lack, it would be very desirable if the education of scientists could include some discussion of ethics, as well as a review of the history of modern science and its impact on society.
The explosive growth of science-driven technology during the last two centuries has changed the world completely; and our social and political institutions have adjusted much too slowly to the change. The great problem of our times is to keep society from being shaken to pieces by the headlong progress of science - the problem of harmonizing our social and political institutions with technological change. Because of the great importance of this problem, it is perhaps legitimate to ask whether anyone today can be considered to be educated without having studied the impact of science on society. Should we not include this topic in the education of both scientists and non-scientists?
Science has given us great power over the forces of nature. If wisely used, this power will contribute greatly to human happiness; if wrongly used, it will result in misery. In the words of the Spanish writer, Ortega y Gasset, “We live at a time when man, lord of all things, is not lord of himself”; or as Arthur Koestler has remarked, “We can control the movements of a spaceship orbiting about a distant planet, but we cannot control the situation in Northern Ireland.”
Thus, far from being obsolete in a technological age, wisdom and ethics are needed now, more than ever before. We need the ethical insights of the great religions and philosophies of humankind - especially the insight which tells us that all humans belong to a single family, that in fact all living creatures are related, and that even inanimate nature deserves our care and respect.
Modern biology has given us the power to create new species and to exert a drastic influence on the course of evolution; but we must use this power with great caution, and with a profound sense of responsibility. There is a possibility that human activities may cause 20% of all species to become extinct within a few decades if we do not act with restraint. The beautiful and complex living organisms on our planet are the product of more than three billion years of evolution. The delicately balanced and intricately interrelated communities of living things on earth must not be destroyed by human greed and thoughtlessness. We need a sense of evolutionary responsibility - a nonanthropocentric component in our system of ethics.
Pictures sent back by the astronauts show the earth as it really is - a small, fragile, beautiful planet, drifting on through the dark immensity of space - our home, where we must learn to live in harmony with nature and with each other.
1 1 terawatt ≡ 1012 Watts is equivalent to 5 billion barrels of oil per year or 1 billion tons of coal per year
2 British Petroleum, "B.P. Statistical Review of World Energy", London, 1991
1. P.M. Vitousek, P.R. Ehrlich, A.H. Ehrlich and P.A. Matson,
Human Appropriation of the Products of Photosynthesis, Bioscience,
34, 368- 373, (1986).