Life on Earth now under threat as never before
OPINION:Earth is on the cusp of one of the greatest ever die-offs, involving mass extinctions of species
WHEN WE put our mind to it, it’s amazing what we can learn to forget. Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 hosted one of the most important international conferences in history, now remembered as the Earth Summit. Some 172 governments were represented in Rio, from all ends of the political spectrum – Fidel Castro and George H Bush were among the 108 heads of state who took part in this groundbreaking environmental congress.
The conference heard a remarkable address from a 12-year-old Canadian girl, Severin Suzuki. She reminded delegates that, as adults, “You teach us how to behave in the world. You teach us not to fight with others, to work things out; to respect others, to clean up our mess. Not to hurt other creatures; to share and not be greedy. Then, why do you go out and do the things you tell us not to do?”
On environmental damage, her message to world leaders was simple: “If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it!” The guilelessness of a child’s earnest appeal captured the zeitgeist and helped shape the tone for the 27 Principles of the Rio Declaration, a bold document drawn up to guide humanity onto a sustainable path with the natural systems upon which we depend. Environmental protection was finally to be placed as a key pillar of all future human progress.
Later in 1992, a panel of 1,700 senior scientists issued a public appeal, headlined: “Warning to Humanity”. Humans and the natural world were, they warned, “on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment . . . if not checked, many of our current practices . . . may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life as we know it”.
The world, it seemed, had at last awoken to the severe ecological threats and was prepared to confront them squarely.
Then, as the years passed by, something truly astonishing happened: absolutely nothing. “Men occasionally stumble over the truth,” Winston Churchill once observed, “but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.” Yes, UN institutions were built and treaties signed, but in reality the battle between the forces touting bare-knuckle economic growth and those arguing for planetary stewardship for future generations has been a rout.
What followed instead were two decades of relentless resource plunder, habitat destruction and pollution. This unprecedented evisceration of the rich diversity of life on Earth has been celebrated as an era of record “economic growth”.
So, fast-forward 20 years to 2012. The Rio+20 conference to be held later this month is now just a pared back three-day affair, with little of substance on the agenda and a clear lack of appetite for action, given that growth, at all costs, is being sold as the panacea for our (growth-induced) woes.
A leaked draft agenda for Rio+20 pointed out that: “Unsustainable development has increased the stress on the Earth’s limited natural resources and on the carrying capacity of ecosystems. Food insecurity, climate change and biodiversity loss have adversely affected development gains.”
Many of the world’s leaders, from Barack Obama to Angela Merkel, are expected to snub the event. Ireland, which yesterday unveiled a pre-Rio document entitled Sustainable Future (long on aspirations, short on binding commitments) is dispatching our accident-prone Minister for the Environment, Phil Hogan, to Brazil.