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Recognition of North-South Dependency Is Solution to Environmental Challenges

By Pierre Marc JohnsonPierre Marc Johnson, former premier of Quebec, is a special advisor to the secretary-general of the UNCED. / May 27, 1992

THE beginning of the new decade has seen profound and sometimes conflicting patterns of changes in the world order.

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With the fall of communism and economic and democratic reform speeding up in the developing nations of the Southern Hemisphere, the Western system of market economics appears triumphant.

The market, however, is found wanting when we are trying to confront the two most important challenges of the end of the century: development and the environment. The ambitious goal that the Earth Summit, (the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development - UNCED), has given itself is to begin the process of fully accounting for the integration of the environment and the economy and articulating the elements of a true reciprocity.

Setting the stage for the period of rapid changes that we are experiencing is an exponential growth of information. Worldwide, more- and more-uniform values and aspirations are presented to communities, while these communities are endowed with vastly different instruments for realizing these legitimate expectations. This is the challenge of development.

The explosion of knowledge has given rise to an acute awareness of the negative consequences of two centuries of industrialization, which forces us to reexamine what makes us consume so much. We are barely beginning to understand the price we have to pay for the wealth we enjoy; Environmental sciences, satellite detection systems, and global databanks are all painting for us a picture of local and global threats. This is the challenge of the environment.

One of the great intuitions of the last decade is that the economy and the global environment are intimately tied in a complex and fragile machinery. This machinery, made up of the Earth's ecological and economic systems, is threatened by transboundary pollution and the depletion of natural resources that are the foundation of the world's economy.

We also have learned that poverty, in many areas of the globe, is a direct cause of environmental degradation and that a damaged environment is itself a cause of further poverty.

Resource consumption and pressure on the environment are expressed in a simple equation: per-capita resource consumption times the number of people. Yet it is impossible to diminish consumption when it is simply at a subsistence level.

One must concede that demographic patterns are also pointing in a direction of more poverty and more irrational resource consumption: In less than two generations, 8.5 billion of the 10 billion inhabitants of the Earth will live in what is now called the third world.

Without population stabilization, most of the economic growth will be absorbed by the maintenance of a precarious multitude. This could mean that all the efforts toward sustainable resource use and environmental protection would be in vain.

The threats against the environment know no borders and demand that the North reformulate its conception of prosperity to include the preservation of global ecological capital. The beginning of the solution is the recognition of the two great interdependencies: that between environment and economy, and that between the North and the South.