Friday, June 29, 2012

Terms of the current ecological debate

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

Rio +20 has provoked widespread debate on environmental issues. Since not everyone understands the technical terms of the issue, we are publishing here an article by the best known environmentalist of the State of Rio, Arthur Soffiati, from Campos de Goytacazes, RJ, founder of the Centro Norte Fluminense para la Conservación de la Naturaleza, published on May 14, 2012 in Folha da Manhã in that city. These are the key words: Sustainable eco-development, green economy, ecological footprint, Anthropocene.

About 11,000 years ago, the Earth's temperature began to rise naturally, causing the progressive melting of the last ice age. Much of the water, going from solid to liquid, raised the sea levels, separated the lands of the continents, formed islands, encouraged the formation of forests and other environments. The scientists gave this new phase the name Holocene.

In the last 11,000 years, of the Hominids, only Homo sapiens remains, who became king over all the planet. With a well-developed brain, he was challenged by the new climatic conditions and domesticated plants and animals, invented farming, created technology to polish stone, invented the wheel, weaving and metallurgy. Then he created cities, empires, dams, drainage systems and irrigation. Several civilizations went beyond the limits of the ecosystems in which they arose, generating environmental crises that contributed to their end.

So the concept of the ecological footprint comes in. It refers to the degree of ecological impact produced by an individual, activity, economy, society. The ecological footprint of civilizations prior to Western civilization was always regional in nature, being reversible sometimes and other times, not. Western civilization is the one that has trod the heaviest so far. The weight started with capitalism, which changed the world.

Since the 15th century, Western civilization (read European) made deep marks with maritime expansion. It imposed its culture on other parts of the world. The world was westernized and also went on to tread heavily on the environment.

Then came another major transformation with the industrial revolution, which originated in England in the 18th century and spread throughout the world, dividing it into industrialized countries and countries that exported raw materials. From it, another global situation began to be created, with emissions of warming gases, devastation of forests, loss of biodiversity, land abuse, strong urbanization, major alterations in the cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus, pollution of fresh water, thinning of the ozone layer, and excessive extraction of nonrenewable natural resources, which, in turn, produce unprecedented amounts of garbage.

Scientists are proving that during the Holocene (holos = whole + koinos = new) era, collective human action in capitalism and socialism has caused an environmental crisis unprecedented in the history of the Earth because it has been generated by a single species. They have named the post-industrial revolution period of the 18th century, Anthropocene, or, a geological phase created by the collective action of man (anthropos = man + koinos = new).

Because of this great crisis and this new era, the United Nations has been promoting major international conferences such as the Stockholm Conference (1972), Rio-92 and now, Rio+20. The aim is to solve the problems of the Anthropocene era, be it reconciling economic development and environmental protection, be it looking for other forms of development. Rio-92 adopted the formula of sustainable development, which has acquired different meanings, even ones that are antagonistic to the original one.

Rio+20 aims to put the environmental, social and economic dimensions on an equal footing. The magic word, now, is green economy, the substance of which isn't unclear. It's assumed that, at least, it means the gradual replacement of carbon-intensive energy sources with renewable energy, and the replacement of nonrenewable resources with renewable ones.

Rio+20 showed that the industrialized countries don't want to abdicate their position, the emerging countries want to reach the industrialized ones, and the poor countries want to be emerging. As long as there is no understanding about the limits of the planet, it is useless to think of social justice and economic development. Consequently, the environment is more important than social and economic issues, because without it one can't find a solution to the other two. On the other hand, the concept of eco-development seems to be the most correct as a tactic and strategy.

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