THE beginning of the new decade has seen profound and sometimes conflicting patterns of changes in the world order.
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.
The Earth Summit is not a simple international environmental conference, but the first attempt by the world's nations to come to terms with how to manage these complex and ambiguous interdependencies. The developing states need the industrialized world to begin a sustained period of economic development and to preserve their environment.
More than anything else, the developing countries need to see the North make serious efforts to reduce its emissions and to manage its resource use in a more environmentally sound manner, in order to give them the "environmental space" needed for their initial phase of development.
Even with the best of technologies, this first stage of economic development in the South will cause an increase in emissions and resource use. This is why it is so important that the industrialized countries, when facing certain global problems, make the greatest efforts to reverse the trend of intolerable resource depletion of our ecological capital.
This reality puts a sharp focus on the dependency, new but impossible to ignore, of the North on the South. The richer countries have initiated the current phase of environmental degradation, but they will need the collaboration of the developing countries to truly manage the environmental challenges we are all facing. The natural resources of both the North and the South, air, water, minerals, and forest products are economic inputs essential to our long-term economic growth.
As a provider of capital and knowledge, as a seller of products, the North also has a great interest in seeing liberal market economies blossom in the South and provide new commercial partners. The conditions of such a new relationship of partners involve, however, improved efficiency in resource use, increased technological cooperation with the developing world, and the establishment of financial mechanisms that support these new relationships.
THE environment and development are converging toward the same reality: The prosperity, health, and survival of industrialized economies requires at once that the South be allowed to develop and that its development choices be more respectful of the environment.
All the other solutions to these great challenges have a greater economic cost in the middle to long term. It is imperative that we find a place for the excluded, who would inevitably end up flooding the dwindling islands of prosperity as the ecological capital of the planet continues to disappear. This will force us to adapt to a world unlike anything we have known before: A world where political relations between countries are at least partly conditioned by supranational authorities even if for now nat ional sovereignty, while eroded, is still staunchly defended. UNCED, in June, will give us a real opportunity, probably the last one this century, to come to terms with these challenges and their solutions.