A THREATENED FUTURE
1. The Earth is one but the world is not. We all depend on one biosphere for sustaining our lives. Yet each community, each country, strives for survival and prosperity with little regard for its impact on others. Some consume the Earth's resources at a rate that would leave little for future generations. Others, many more in number, consume far too little and live with the prospect of hunger, squalor, disease, and early death.
2. Yet progress has been made. Throughout much of the world, children born today can expect to live longer and be better educated than their parents. In many parts, the new-born can also expect to attain a higher standard of living in a wider sense. Such progress provides hope as we contemplate the improvements still needed, and also as we face our failures to make this Earth a safer and sounder home for us and for those who are to come.
3. The failures that we need to correct arise both from poverty and from the short-sighted way in which we have often pursued prosperity. Many parts of the world are caught in a vicious downwards spiral: Poor people are forced to overuse environmental resources to survive from day to day, and their impoverishment of their environment further impoverishes them, making their survival ever more difficult and uncertain. The prosperity attained in some parts of the world is often precarious, as it has been secured through farming, forestry, and industrial practices that bring profit and progress only over the short term.
4. Societies have faced such pressures in the past and, as many desolate ruins remind us, sometimes succumbed to them. But generally these pressures were local. Today the scale of ow interventions in nature is increasing and the physical effects of our decisions spill across national frontiers. The growth in economic interaction between nations amplifies the wider consequences of national decisions. Economics and ecology bind us in ever-tightening networks. Today, many regions face risks of irreversible damage to the human environment that threaten the basis for human progress.
5. These deepening interconnections are the central justification for the establishment of this Commission. We travelled the world for nearly three years, listening. At special public hearings organized by the Commission, we heard from government leaders, scientists, and experts, from citizens' groups concerned about a wide range of environment and development issues, and from thousands of individuals farmers, shanty-town residents, young people, industrialists, and indigenous and tribal peoples.
6. We found everywhere deep public concern for the environment, concern that has led not just to protests but often to changed behaviour. The challenge is to ensure that these new values are more adequately reflected in the principles and operations of political and economic structures.
7. We also found grounds for hope: that people can cooperate to build a future that is more prosperous, more just, and more secure; that a new era of economic growth can be attained, one based on policies that sustain and expand the Earth's resource base; and that the progress that some have known over the last century can be experienced by all in the years ahead. But for this to happen, we must understand better the symptoms of stress that confront us, we must identify the causes, and we must design new approaches to managing environmental resources and to sustaining human development
I. Symptoms and Causes
8. Environmental stress has often been seen as the result of the growing demand on scarce resources and the pollution generated by the rising living standards of the relatively affluent. But poverty itself pollutes the environment, creating environmental stress in a different way. Those who are poor and hungry will often destroy their immediate environment in order to survive: They will cut down forests; their livestock will overgraze grasslands; they will overuse marginal land; and in growing numbers they will crowd into congested cities. The cumulative effect of these changes is so far-reaching as to make poverty itself a major global scourge.
9. On the other hand, where economic growth has led to improvements in living standards, it has sometimes been achieved in ways that are globally damaging in the longer term. Much of the improvement in the past has been based on the use of increasing amounts of raw materials, energy, chemicals, and synthetics and on the creation of pollution that is not adequately accounted for in figuring the costs of production processes. These trends have had unforeseen effects on the environment. Thus today's environmental challenges arise both from the lack of development and from the unintended consequences of some forms of economic growth.
10. There are more hungry people in the world today than ever before in human history, and their numbers are growing. In 1980, there were 340 million people in 87 developing countries not getting enough calories to prevent stunted growth and serious health risks. This total was very slightly below the figure for 1970 in terms of share of the world population, but in terms of sheer numbers, it represented a 14 per cent increase. The World Bank predicts that these numbers are likely to go on growing.
11. The number of people living in slums and shanty towns is rising, not falling. A growing number lack access to clean water and sanitation and hence are prey to the diseases that arise from this lack. There is some progress, impressive in places. But, on balance, poverty persists and its victims multiply.
12. The pressure of poverty has to be seen in a broader context. At the international level there are large differences in per capita income, which ranged in 1984 from $190 in low income countries (other than China and India) to $11,430 in the industrial market economies. (See Table 1-1)
|Countries||Population (millions)||Per capita GDP (1984 dollars)||Average annual growth rate of per capita GDP, 1965-1984 (per cent)|
|Low-income countries (excluding China, India)||611||190||0.9|
|China and India||1,778||390||3.2|
|Lower Middle-income Economies||691||740||1.0|
|Upper Middle-income Economies||497||1,980||3.1|
|High-Income Oil Exporters||19||11,350||3.2|
|Industrial Market Economies||732||11,430||2.4|
Source: Based on data in World Bank, World Development Report, 1985. (New York, Oxford University Press, 1986)
13. Such inequalities represent great differences not merely in the quality of life today, but also in the capacity of societies to improve their quality of life in the future. Most of the world's poorest countries depend for increasing export earnings on tropical agricultural products that are vulnerable to fluctuating or declining terms of trade. Expansion can often only be achieved at the price of ecological stress. Yet diversification in ways that will alleviate both poverty and ecological stress is hampered by disadvantageous terms of technology transfer, by protectionism, and by declining financial flows to those countries that most need international finance.
14. Within countries, poverty has been exacerbated by the unequal distribution of land and other assets. The rapid rise in population has compromised the ability to raise living standards. These factors, combined with growing demands for the commercial use of good land, often to grow crops for exports, have pushed many subsistence farmers onto poor land and robbed them of any hope of participating in their nations' economic lives. The same forces have meant that traditional shifting cultivators, who once cut forests, grew crops, and then gave the forest time to recover, now have neither land enough nor time to let forests re-establish. So forests are being destroyed, often only to create poor farmland that cannot support those who till it. Extending cultivation onto steep slopes is increasing soil erosion in many hilly sections of both developing and developed nations. In any river valleys, areas chronically liable to floods are now farmed.
15. These pressures are reflected in the rising incidence of disasters. During the 1970s, six times as many people died from 'natural disasters' each year as in the 1960s, and twice as many suffered from such disasters. Droughts and floods, disasters among whose causes are widespread deforestation and overcultivation, increased most in terms of numbers affected. There were 18.5 million people affected by droughts annually in the 1960s, but 24.4 billion in the 1970s; 5.2 billion people were victims of floods yearly in the 1960s, compared with 15.4 million in the 1970s The results are not in for the 1980s, but this disaster-prone decade seems to be carrying forward the trend, with droughts in Africa, India, and Latin America, and floods throughout Asia, parts of Africa, and the Andean region of Latin America.
16. Such disasters claim most of their victims among the impoverished in poor nations, where subsistence farmers must make their land more liable to droughts and floods by clearing marginal areas, and where the poor make themselves tore vulnerable to all disasters by living on steep slopes and unprotected shores - the only lands left for their shanties. Lacking food and foreign exchange reserves their economically vulnerable governments are ill-equipped to cope with such catastrophes.17. The links between environmental stress and developmental disaster are most evident in sub-Saharan Africa. Per capita food production, declining since the 1960s, plummeted during the drought of the 1980s, and at the height of the food emergency some 35 million people were exposed to risk. Human overuse of land and prolonged drought threaten to turn the grasslands of Africa's Sahel region into desert. No other region more tragically suffers the vicious cycle of poverty leading to environmental degradation, which leads in turn to even greater poverty.
18. In some parts of the world, particularly since the mid-1950s, growth and development have vastly improved living standards and the quality of life. Many of the products and technologies that have gone into this improvement are raw material- and energy-intensive and entail a substantial amount of pollution. The consequent impact on the environment is greater than ever before in human history.
19. Over the past century, the use of fossil fuels has grown nearly thirtyfold, and industrial production has increased move than fiftyfold. The bulk of this increase, about three-quarters in the case of fossil fuels and a little over four-fifths in the case of industrial production, has taken place since 1950. The annual increase in industrial production today is perhaps as large as the total production in Europe around the end of the 1930s. Into every year we now squeeze the decades of industrial growth and environmental disruption that formed the basis of the pre-war European economy.
20. Environmental stresses also arise from more traditional forms of production. More land has been cleared for settled cultivation in the past 100 years than in all the previous centuries of human existence. Interventions in the water cycles have increased greatly. Massive dams, most of them built after 1960, impound a large proportion of the river flow. In Europe and Asia, water use has reached 10 per cent of the annual run off, a figure that is expected to rise to 20-25 per cent by the end of the century.
21. The impact of growth and rising income levels can be seen in the distribution of world consumption of a variety of resource intensive produce. The more affluent industrialized countries use most of the world's metals and fossil fuels. Even in the case of food products a sharp difference exists, particularly in the products that are more resource-intensive. (See Table 1-2.)
|Developed Countries (26% of population)||Developing Countries (74% of population)|
|Units of Per Capita Consumption||Share in World Consumption||Share in World Consumption|
|Commodity||per cent||per capita||per cent||per capita|
Source: WCED estimates based on country-level data from FAO, UN Statistical Office, UNCTAD and American Metals Association
22. In recent years, industrial countries have been able to achieve economic growth using less energy and raw materials per unit of output. This, along with the efforts to reduce the emission of pollutants, will help to contain the pressure on the biosphere. But with the increase in population and the rise in incomes, per capita consumption of energy and materials will go up in the developing countries, as it has to if essential needs are to be met. Greater attention to resource efficiency can moderate the increase, but, on balance, environmental problems linked to resource use will intensify in global terms.
23. The scale and complexity of our requirements for natural resources have increased greatly with the rising levels of population and production. Nature is bountiful, but it is also fragile and finely balanced. There are thresholds that cannot be crossed without endangering the basic integrity of the system. Today we are close to many of these thresholds; we must be ever mindful of the risk of endangering the survival of life on Earth. Moreover, the speed with which changes in resource use are taking place gives little time in which to anticipate and prevent unexpected effects.24. The 'greenhouse effect', one such threat to life support systems, springs directly from increased resource use. The burning of fossil fuels and the cutting and burning of forests release carbon dioxide (CO2). The accumulation in the atmosphere of CO2 and certain other gases traps solar radiation near the Earth's surface, causing global warming. This could cause sea level rises over the next 45 years large enough to inundate many low lying coastal cities and river deltas. It could also drastically upset national and international agricultural production and trade systems.
25. Another threat arises from the depletion of the atmospheric ozone layer by gases released during the production of foam and the use of refrigerants and aerosols. A substantial loss of such ozone could have catastrophic effects on human and livestock health and on some life forms at the base of the marine food chain. The 1986 discovery of a hole in the ozone layer above the Antarctic suggests the possibility of a more rapid depletion than previously suspected.
26. A variety of air pollutants are killing trees and lakes and damaging buildings and cultural treasures, close to and sometimes thousands of miles from points of emission. The acidification of the environment threatens large areas of Europe and North America. Central Europe is currently receiving more than one gramme of sulphur on every square metre of ground each year. The loss of forests could bring in its wake disastrous erosion, siltation, floods, and local climatic change. Air pollution damage is also becoming evident in some newly industrialized countries.
27. In many cases the practices used at present to dispose of toxic wastes, such as those from the chemical industries, involve unacceptable risks. Radioactive wastes from the nuclear industry remain hazardous for centuries. Many who bear these risks do not benefit in any way from the activities that produce the wastes.
28. Desertification – the process whereby productive arid and semi-arid land is rendered economically unproductive – and large-scale deforestation are other examples of major threats to the integrity of regional ecosystems. Desertification involves complex interactions between humans, land, and climate. The pressures of subsistence food production, commercial crops, and meat production in arid and semi-arid areas all contribute to this process.
29. Each year another 6 million hectares are degraded to desert-like conditions. Over three decades, this would amount to an area roughly as large as Saudi Arabia. More than 11 million hectares of tropical forests are destroyed per year and this, over 30 years, would amount to an area about the size of India Apart from the direct and often dramatic impacts within the immediate area, nearby regions are affected by the spreading of sands or by changes in water regimes and increased risks of soil erosion and siltation.
30. The loss of forests and other wild lands extinguishes species of plants and animals and drastically reduces the genetic diversity of the world's ecosystems. This process robs present and future generations of genetic material with which to improve crop varieties, to make them less vulnerable to weather stress, pest attacks, and disease. The loss of species and subspecies, many as yet unstudied by science, deprives us of important potential sources of medicines and industrial chemicals. It removes forever creatures of beauty and parts of our cultural heritage; it diminishes the biosphere.
31. Many of the risks stemming from our productive activity and the technologies we use cross-national boundaries; many are global. Though the activities that give rise to these dangers tend to be concentrated in a few countries, the risks are shared by all, rich and poor, those who benefit from them and those who do not. Most who share in the risks have little influence on the decision processes that regulate these activities.
32. Little time is available for corrective action. In some cases we may already be close to transgressing critical thresholds. While scientists continue to research and debate causes and effects, in many cases we already know enough to warrant action. This is true locally and regionally in the cases of such threats as desertification, deforestation, toxic wastes, and acidification; it is true globally for such threats as climate change, ozone depletion, and species loss. The risks increase faster than do our abilities to manage them.
33. Perhaps the greatest threat to the Earth's environment, to sustainable human progress, and indeed to survival is the possibility of nuclear war, increased daily by the continuing arms race and its spread to outer space. The search for a more viable future can only be meaningful in the context of a more vigorous effort to renounce and eliminate the development of means of annihilation.
4. The Economic Crisis
34. The environmental difficulties that confront us are not new, but only recently have we begun to understand their complexity. Previously our main concerns centred on the effects of development on the environment. Today, we need to be equally concerned about the ways in which environmental degradation can dampen or reverse economic development. In one area after another, environmental degradation is eroding the potential for development. This basic connection was brought into sharp focus by the environment and development crises of the 1980s.
35. The slowdown in the momentum of economic expansion and the stagnation in world trade in the 1980s challenged all nations' abilities to react and adjust. Developing countries that rely on the export of primary products have been hit particularly hard by falling commodity prices. Between 1980 and 1984, developing countries lost about $55 billion in export earnings because of the fall in commodity prices, a blow felt most keenly in Latin America and Africa.
36. As a consequence of this period of slow growth in the world economy - together with rising debt service obligations and a decline in the inflow of finance - many developing countries have facet) severe economic crises. Over half of all developing countries actually experienced declining per capita GDP in the years 1982-85 and per capita GDP has fallen, for developing countries as a whole, by around 10 per cent in the 1980s. (See Table 1-3.)
|Gross Domestic Product||(per cent)|
|All Developing Countries||4.9||1.3||0.2||0.8||2.1||2.5|
|Developing Countries Excluding Large Countries||4.5||1.0||0.6||0.1||1.5||1.4|
|Per Capita GDP|
|All developing Countries||2.4||1.0||2.1||1.5||0.2||0.2|
|Developing Countries Excluding Large Countries||1.9||1.5||-3.1||-2.4||-1.0||1.1|
|Source: Department of International Economic and Social Affairs, Doubling Development Finance: Meeting a Global Challenge, Views and Recommendations of the Committee on Development and Planning (New York: UN, 1986)|
37. The heaviest burden in international economic adjustment has been carried by the world's poorest people. The consequence has been a considerable increase in human distress and the overexploitation of land and natural resources to ensure survival in the short term.
38. Many international economic problems remain unresolved: Developing country indebtedness remains serious; commodity and energy markets are highly unstable; financial flows to developing countries are seriously deficient; protectionism and trade wars are a serious threat. Yet at a time when multilateral institutions, and rules, are more than ever necessary, they have been devalued. And the notion of an international responsibility for development has virtually disappeared. The trend is towards a decline in multilateralism and an assertion of national dominance.
II. New Approaches to Environment and Development
39. Human progress has always depended on our technical ingenuity and a capacity for cooperative action. These qualities have often been used constructively to achieve development and environmental progress: in air and water pollution control, for example, and in increasing the efficiency of material and energy use. Many countries have increased food production and reduced population growth rates. Some technological advances, particularly in medicine, have been widely shared.
40. But this is not enough. Failures to manage the environment and to sustain development threaten to overwhelm all countries. Environment and development are not separate challenges; they are inexorably linked. Development cannot subsist upon a deteriorating environmental resource base; the environment cannot be protected when growth leaves out of account the costs of environmental destruction. These problems cannot be treated separately by fragmented institutions and policies. They are linked in a complex system of cause and effect.
41. First, environmental stresses are linked one to another. For example, deforestation, by increasing run off, accelerates soil erosion and siltation of rivers and lakes. Air pollution and acidification play their part in killing forests and lakes. Such links mean that several different problems must be tackled simultaneously. And success in one area, such as forest protection, can improve chances of success in another area, such as soil conservation.42. Second, environmental stresses and patterns of economic development are linked one to another. Thus agricultural policies may lie at the root of land, water, and forest degradation. Energy policies are associated with the global greenhouse effect, with acidification, and with deforestation for fuelwood in many developing nations. These stresses all threaten economic development. Thus economics and ecology must be completely integrated in decision making and lawmaking processes not just to protect the environment, but also to protect and promote development. Economy is not just about the production of wealth, and ecology is not just about the protection of nature; they are both equally relevant for improving the lot of humankind.
43. Third, environmental and economic problems are linked to many social and political factors. For example, the rapid population growth that has so profound an impact on the environment and on development in many regions is driven partly by such factors as the status of women in society and other cultural values. Also, environmental stress and uneven development can increase social tensions. It could be argued that the distribution of power and influence within society lies at the heart of most environment and development challenges. Hence new approaches must involve programmes of social development, particularly to improve the position of women in society, to protect vulnerable groups, and to promote local participation in decision making.
44. Finally, the systemic features operate not merely within but also between nations. National boundaries have become so porous that traditional distinctions between matters of local, national, and international significance have become blurred. Ecosystems do not respect national boundaries. Water pollution moves through shared rivers, lakes, and seas. The atmosphere carries air pollution over vast distances. Major accidents - particularly those at nuclear reactors or at plants or warehouses containing toxic materials – can have widespread regional effects.45. Many environment economy links also operate globally. For instance, the highly subsidized, incentive-driven agriculture of industrialized market economies generates surpluses that depress
prices and erode the viability of the often neglected agriculture of developing countries. Soils and other environmental resources suffer in both systems. Each country may devise national agricultural policies to secure short-tern economic and political gains, but no nation alone can devise policies to deal effectively with the financial, economic, and ecological costs of the agricultural and trade policies of other nations.
To successfully advance in solving global problems, we need to develop new methods of thinking, to elaborate new moral and value criteria, and, no doubt, new patterns of behaviour.
Mankind is on the threshold of a new stage in its development. We should not only promote the expansion of its material, scientific, and technical basis, but, what is most important, the formation of new value and humanistic aspirations in human psychology, since wisdom and humaneness are the 'eternal truths' that make the basis of humanity. We need new social, moral, scientific, and ecological concepts, which should be determined by new conditions for the life of mankind today and in the future.
WCED Public Hearing
Moscow, 8 Dec 1986
46. In the past, responsibility for environmental matters has been placed in environmental ministries and institutions that often have had little or no control over destruction caused by agricultural, industrial, urban development, forestry, and transportation policies and practices. Society has failed to give the responsibility for preventing environmental damage to the 'sectoral' ministries and agencies whose policies cause it. Thus our environmental management practices have focused largely upon after-the-fact repair of damage: reforestation, reclaiming desert lands, rebuilding urban environments, restoring natural habitats, and rehabilitating wild lands. The ability to anticipate and prevent environmental damage will require that the ecological dimensions of policy be considered at the same time as the economic, trade, energy, agricultural, and other dimensions.
47. In most countries, environmental policies are directed at the symptoms of harmful growth; these policies have brought progress and rewards and must be continued and strengthened. But that will not be enough. What is required is a new approach in which all nations aim at a type of development that integrates production with resource conservation and enhancement, and that links both to the provision for all of an adequate livelihood base and equitable access to resources.48. The concept of sustainable development provides a framework for the integration of environment policies and development strategies – the term 'development' being used here in its broadest sense. The word is often taken to refer to the processes of economic and social change in the Third World. But the integration of environment and development is required in all countries, rich and poor. The pursuit of sustainable development requires changes in the domestic and international policies of every nation.
You talk very little about life, you talk too much about survival. It is very important to remember that when the possibilities for life are over, the possibilities for survival start. And there are peoples here in Brazil, especially in the Amazon region, who still live, and these peoples that still live don't want to reach down to the level of survival.
Speaker from the floor
WCED Public Hearing
Sao Paulo, 26-29 Oct 1985
49. Sustainable development seeks to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future. Far from requiring the cessation of economic growth, it recognizes that the problems of poverty and underdevelopment cannot be solved unless we have a new era of growth in which developing countries play a large role and reap large benefits.
50. Economic growth always brings risk of environmental damage, as it puts increased pressure on environmental resources. But policy makers guided by the concept of sustainable development will necessarily work to assure that growing economies remain firmly attached to their ecological roots and that these roots are protected and nurtured so that they may support growth over the long term. Environmental protection is thus inherent in the concept of sustainable development, as is a focus on the sources of environmental problems rather than the symptoms.
51. No single blueprint of sustainability will be found, as economic and social systems and ecological conditions differ widely among countries. Each nation will have to work out its own concrete policy implications. Yet irrespective of these differences, sustainable development should be seen as a global objective.
52. No country can develop in isolation from others. Hence the pursuit of sustainable development requires a new orientation in international relations. Long term sustainable growth will requite far-reaching changes to produce trade, capital, and technology flows that are more equitable and better synchronized to environmental imperatives.
53. The mechanics of increased international cooperation required to assure sustainable development will vary from sector to sector and in relation to particular institutions. But it is fundamental that the transition to sustainable development be managed jointly by all nations. The unity of human needs requires a functioning multilateral system that respects the democratic principle of consent and accepts that not only the Earth but also the world is one.
54. In the chapters that follow we examine these issues in greater detail and make a number of specific proposals for responding to the crises of a threatened future. Overall, our report carries a message of hope. But it is hope conditioned upon the establishment of a new era of international cooperation based on the premise that every human being - those here and those who are to come - has the right to life, and to a decent life. We confidently believe that the international community can rise, as it must, to the challenge of securing sustainable human progress.
- World Bank, Poverty and Hunger: Issues and Options for Food Security in developing Countries (Washington, DC: 1986).
- Department of International Economic and Social Affairs, Doubling Development Finance: Meeting a Global Challenge, Views and Recommendations of the Committee on Development Planning (New York: UN, 1986)
- G. Hagman et al., Prevention Better Than Cure, Report on Human and Environmental Disasters in the Third World (Stockholm: Swedish Red Cross, 1984).
- UN, General Assembly, 'The Critical Economic Situation in Africa: Report of the Secretary General', A/S-13/2, New York, 20 May 1986.
- Based on data from W.W. Rostow, The World Economy: History and Prospect (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976); UN, World Energy Supplies in Selected Years 1929-1950 (New York: 1952); UN, Statistical Yearbook 1982 (New York: 1985); UNCTAD, Handbook of International Trade and Development Statistics 1985 Supplement (New York: 1985); W.S. and E.S. Woytinsky, World Population and Production: Trends and Outlook (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1953).
- USSR Committee for the International Hydrological Decade, World Water Balance and Water Resources of the Earth (Paris: UNESCO, 1978).
- WMO, A Report of the International Conference on the Assessment of Carbon Dioxide and other Greenhouse Gases in Climate Variations and Associated Impacts, Villach, Austria, 9-15 October 1985, WMO No. 661 (Geneva: WMO/ICSU/UNEP, 1986).
- National Science Foundation, 'Scientists Closer to Identifying Cause of Antarctic Ozone Layer Depletion news release, Washington, DC, 20 October 1986.
- J. Lehmhaus et al., Calculated and Observed Data for 1980 Compared at EMEP Measurement Stations', Norwegian Meteorological Institute, EMEP/MSC-W Report 1-86, 1986.
- UNEP, 'General Assessment of Progress in the Implementation of the Plan of Action to Combat Desertification 1978-1984', Nairobi, 1984; WCED Advisory Panel on Food Security, Agriculture, Forestry and Environment, Food Security (London: Zed Books, 1987).
- World Resources Institute/International Institute for Environment and Development, World Resources 1986 (New York: Basic Books, 1986).
- UNCTAD, Trade and Development Report 1986 (New York: 1986).