Did any development come out of this conference?
So the conference on sustaining world development is over. What an anti-climax, 60,000 delegates - 60,000! And what did they achieve? Very little. Some commitment to improving clean water supplies to those without and an agreement to reach a situation where 1% of the world's energy is obtained from renewable sources - just 1%! The Europeans were suggesting 10%.
There were a thousand and one questions for them to address but I suppose for them to provide any answers was too much to expect. At least one could agree that they did succeed in bringing some of these problems more to the fore. The sort of questions that have to be addressed if we are ever going to achieve sustainable development in a humanitarian world are:
How are we going to provide enough food so that those constantly recurring famines can be prevented? Can we do this using GM crops? Are GM crops a threat to the environment? How are we going to ensure a suitable supply of drinking water to those areas where countless people, especially children, die for the lack of it? Does the generation of energy using fossil fuels lead to global warming? Is global warming a natural phenomenon or is it due to greenhouse gases? If the latter, what can be done to prevent it? Are we nearing the limit of the Earth's natural resources of fossil fuels and minerals? What will be the sources of energy in the future? Do we need and can we find alternatives to the materials widely used today? Why can't we make modern drugs for the treatment of aids and other diseases more available to those millions currently suffering? Etc etc. Each one of these questions can generate a host of other questions. ------ Yes those delegates in Johannesburg did have an impossible task.
To their credit; environmentalists, the Green Party, John Gummer, Michael Meacher and many others before them have been trying to focus more attention on these questions for years now. The problem is that they and/or their supporters have been prophets of doom for so long that they have tended to lose credibility. In the 1970's I attended a conference entitled 'Energy in the 1980's'; papers were presented by many people from learned bodies and from the major oil companies. All were predicting that oil supply would fall short of demand before the year 2000 so that it would no longer be available for traditional uses. Similar conferences or statements by experts predicted that gold would run out by 1981, silver and mercury in 1985 and zinc in 1990. 15 years ago many were prophesying a doubling of traffic in the UK, whereas it has only grown by about 10%. As long ago as 1865 Stanley Jevons predicted that Britain would collapse because we were running out of coal. No doubt there are many more examples of false prophecies.
It would be wrong, however, to underestimate the seriousness of the problems facing the world and the need to find answers to those questions above as well as the many other questions, but the debate must be reasoned and must face the truth. One report published recently claimed that it will be necessary to colonise other planets by 2050 because the world will have run out of resources. It is this type of hysterical reporting to which I object most strongly.
The truth is that we have very little idea of the extent to which natural resources will remain available to us. When any particular resource appears to be nearing exhaustion there are greater efforts to locate new sources, which are usually successful, although the new sources may be more difficult to extract. The potential of the Antarctic as a source of minerals and fossil fuels has hardly been touched to date. If a raw material does genuinely become in short supply there are always increased efforts to find alternative materials, or alternative solutions.
Nevertheless it is an obvious truth that there will come a time at some indeterminate time in the future, when many of the minerals of the Earth have been used and, as a consequence become so diffused across the world that their re-use will be extremely difficult. Whether or not alternative solutions will be found to the problems that that would generate is a matter for conjecture. It is also very obvious that the use of fossil fuels as an energy source has a strictly limited future, although nobody has any real idea as to how long that future is, but, without doubt alternatives will be utilised.
The exhaustion of minerals and fossil fuels is only one part of the overall problem and, to my mind, not the most serious. Provision of food, clean water and improved health care for the people of the underdeveloped countries must be the first step towards improving their quality of life. Of course there has been much effort expended in this direction over the last 50 years, the fact that these efforts have met with some success is, I would argue, demonstrated by the manner in which populations have increased. And therein lies the real nub of all the problems. In the last 50 years the world population has roughly doubled from somewhere a little over 3bn to over 6bn. Will it double again in the next 50 years? (As an aside, with all the worries that there are about carbon dioxide it is worth noting that a conservative estimate shows that that extra 3,000,000,000 people breathe out 300,000,000 tonnes of CO2 a year, almost five times the amount produced by all the cars in the UK.)
It seems that in some areas the population increases to the point where, come a bad year, the harvest is poor, there is not sufficient food and many die of famine. I very much fear that all attempts to improve health care, along with water and food supplies, will be negated by a corresponding increase in population so that the quality of life for these people will not improve and famines will not be avoided. Some work is being done to educate and provide the means for birth control but clearly not nearly enough. It is unbelievable to my mind that a conference dedicated to sustainable development should focus so little attention on the problem of population growth.
What chance is there of achieving a satisfactory level of birth control? Not much, especially when one of the world's largest religions is teaching that the use of birth control aids is a sin. What chance is there of Britain leading the argument for more population control? Not much when the wife of the PM is an adherent to that religion and when we have the worst level of teenage pregnancies in the western world. Charities working in the third world could help by freely distributing pills and condoms, but one of the largest charities 'Christian Aid' will not do this because of the influence of the Catholic Church.
So sadly I must conclude that, until the world wakes up to the desperate need to tackle this problem, all the efforts to achieve sustainable development will come to nothing. It is like trying to fill a bucket with a large hole in it.