The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development Fr. Seán McDonagh


In my article yesterday, I outlined some of the  background which led to the setting up of The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

The WorldWatch Institute in Washington D.C. is an interdisciplinary institute which assesses how the demands of humankind are effecting the well-being of the earth and future generations of humans. In its State of the World Report 2010, sixty renowned researchers and practitioners describe how we must harness the world’s leading institutions to reorient cultures towards sustainability. This would include education, the media, business, governments, traditions, and social movements to reorient cultures toward sustainability.   In the preface of the report, Christopher Flavin the President of WorldWatch Institute, wrote about “the Great Collision” between a finite planet and the seemingly infinite demands of human society. More than 6.8 billion human beings are now demanding ever greater quantities of material resources, decimating the world’s richest ecosystems, and dumping billion of tons of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere each year.”

The really worrying statistic is that “despite a 30 percent increase in resource efficiency, global resource use has expanded 50 percent over the past three decades.”[1] The growth in consumption is staggering.  It includes a six-fold increase between 1960 and 2008, that is from $4.9 trillion to $30.5 trillion.  Even with the population growth, per capita consumption has tripled, helped by sophisticated advertising by transnational corporations. Increased consumption means consuming more of the earth’s resources. This means using more fossil fuel which involves opening coal mines and prospecting for more oil. Rapid increases in consumer spending involves opening more mines, building more factories roads, railways and shopping outlets. Increased consumption leads to more waste. It also means expanding agriculture often into crucial ecosystems such as the Amazon and the tropical forests South East Asia. The forests are burned to provide land for palm and soya plantations, thereby destroying valuable biodiversity.  Essential habitats are being systematically destroyed which is an immense impoverishment for the biosphere and yet, so few seem to notice because the culture of consumerism has trained them to keep their eyes fixated on growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). According to Flavin, from a justice perspective the main responsibility for the current ecological devastation must be placed at the foot of rich nations.[2]

Since humankind appeared on the planet 2 million years ago, people have depended on other creatures for their food, clothing and shelter. As civilizations developed two thousand years ago, levels of consumption continued to increase. The exponential rate of consumption which emerged in the 20th century, was driven by advertising, planned obsolescence, the search for economic growth and the enormous  dependence on non-renewable source of energy.


[1]  Christopher Flavin,  2010,  “Preface”, “2010 State of the World: Transforming Cultures from Consumerism to Sustainability,  page xv

[2] Ibid page 5.


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