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Sustainable Development: Mirage or Achievable Goal? ROBERT M. WHITE President. National Academy of Engineering Environmental issues are quintessential global problems that require policy makers to consider all the options offered by science, technology, economics, and social science if they are to address these issues wisely. Policy makers also must ask themselves: Is environmentally sustainable economic growth a mirage or an attainable goal? If such growth is attainable, where can intellectual and financial investments make a substantial difference? For many years the conventional wisdom, especially in much of the develop- ing world, was that environmental protection and economic development were largely incompatible. In 1987, however, the report of the United Nations' Brundt- land Commission, Our Common Future, argued against this view. The idea that the environment and development are not antithetical became the philosophical framework for the UN Conference on Environment and Development, which convened in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and it is now the overarching philosophy guiding world actions. Indeed, the phrase "sustainable development" has become the global environmental watchword, capturing the idea that economic develop- ment can be environmentally sustainable. Moreover, this concept suggests that sustainable development not only is a desirable goal, but also is necessary to prevent eventual global, societal, and environmental collapse. Early adherents to this view envisioned a sufficient transfer of resources from the industrialized to developing nations to enable this grand global bargain to be consummated. The Global Environmental Facility (GEF) of the World Bank was the result. But now society is on the road from Rio to reality, and the road is riddled with potholes political, economic, technological, scientific, and otherwise. Charting the pathways to sustainable economic growth will require understand 237
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238 Marshaling Technology for Development ing of the forces that lead to unsustainability: population growth, the drive for economic and social equity, the need for adequate food and energy, and the longtime trend toward increased industrialization to provide goods and services. The complexity of this global dilemma stems from the lack of ways to address the interconnections among these driving forces. A growing population requires more land for human habitation and food production, which leads to soil erosion and the degradation of virgin lands. Animal habitats are affected, which leads in turn to the extinction of some species. The net result is an impoverished resource base to sustain life. Or again, increased industrial and agricultural pro- duction to achieve higher living standards requires more energy, thus increasing greenhouse gas emissions and the production of other pollutants. The conse- quences are climatic warming, urban air pollution, and degraded aquatic systems. Approaches to environmental problems are rendered even more difficult because many environmental problems are global, requiring action across na- tions. Yet any action only can be taken locally in countries with different politi- cal, social, and economic systems, cultures, levels of education, and capacities in science and technology. The dilemma is an ancient one. Two hundred years ago, Thomas Malthus pointed out the expected long-term consequences of unrestrained population growth in the face of a limited food supply. In more recent years, studies such as those of the Club of Rome have addressed the consequences of unrestrained growth in the face of limited resources. The Club of Rome's 1972 report Limits to Growth foresaw nothing but a global apocalypse.2 But the apocalyptic nature of many of these analyses of global systems has so far failed the test of reality. For example, Malthus could not foresee the revolution in food production that science and technology would produce. The green revolution has turned food-importing nations into food-exporting nations, and the future promises continued quantum leaps in food production as genetic engineering yields greater and more resilient crop strains and promises to multi- ply key aspects of animal productivity. Energy supplies have systematically in- creased despite predictions that reserves of fossil fuels will decline. Science and technology have made possible the discovery of new energy sources even as they have made nuclear and renewable sources technically practical. Technology itself has been central to the processes of change that have made it possible to avert predictions of environmental calamities by providing expanded options in infra- structure, habitat, and lifestyles for what in the end is determined on socioeco- nomic grounds through the political process. The effects of advances in science and technology historically have been hard to predict. For example, the following scientific and technological discover- ies and developments took place less than 50 years ago, yet they already have had profound impacts the way we live, think, and conduct business and our everyday lives. The first commercial jet aircraft flew only in 1949, although the first experimental jet was introduced in 1939. The power of the atom, when harnessed,
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ROBERT M. WHITE 239 was unfortunately demonstrated in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. In 1953, Watson and Crick unraveled the secret of the double helix and the DNA molecule, opening the era of molecular biology and genetic engineering and technology. Earth-orbiting satellites were not introduced until 1957 by the Russians, and the transistor and its progeny the microchip, the personal com- puter, and modern communications did not make their debut until 1948. Fiber optics and the laser are only 30 years old. And the birth-control pill arrived in 1957. Any attempts to predict future scientific discoveries or technological devel- opments will be uncertain at best. Indeed, one cannot extrapolate the future assuming a dumb world in which intellectual power and humanity's capacity to choose is straitjacketed. Predictions of the future that assume an unchanging response by society are doomed to apocalyptic conclusions. Historically, scientific discoveries and technological developments have serendipitously ameliorated environmental deterioration or have produced unan- ticipated deleterious effects. For example, gas from oil wells was flared as a useless byproduct of oil production until technology provided ways to use it eco- nomically. The use of creosote to preserve wooden railroad ties effectively protected forests by reducing the number of trees harvested. The internal combustion en- gine changed the face of society, rescuing it from the pollution of horse-drawn carriages and exposing it to pollution from auto exhausts. In more recent times, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were introduced as a safety measure in refrigeration systems to replace ammonia. But their very desirable inert character enabled these chemicals to reach the stratosphere (unaffected by lower atmospheric pro- cessesJ, where their decomposition in the presence of sunlight released the chlo- rine atoms that are thought to trigger the depletion of stratospheric ozone. Until recently, technological innovations, with some notable exceptions such as the development of sanitary water supply systems, were motivated by eco- nomic interests. Their environmental implications, good or bad, anticipated or unanticipated, were considered side effects. Today, by contrast, environmental benefits are often explicit objectives of technological innovation. For example, the remarkable degree to which digital information technologies can control in- dustrial processes is now minimizing effluents and emissions in ways that were not possible earlier. Modern-day engineering design concepts (for automobiles, for example) take into account the reuse and recyclability of products. And mate- rial substitution is minimizing environmental problems and dematerializing prod- ucts. Outstanding examples are the new chemicals developed to replace chloro- fluorocarbons in refrigeration systems and as solvents. Finally, modern human reproduction technologies such as the birth-control pill and RU 486 give men and women more control over the size of their families and the spacing of their children. In short, none of the forces causing global environmental unsustain- ability is immune from the effects of developments in science and technology, although the adoption of various technologies is sometimes painfully slowed by cultural and social practices and the lack of political will.
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240 Marshaling Technology for Development Environmental technologies, or better technologies for the environment , _ ~1_ _ _ 1 _ _ ~.. . . cover a wide spectrum of engineering activities that embrace, among other things, the technologies for avoiding pollution or other kinds of environmental deteriora- tion; the technologies for monitoring and assessing environmental conditions or the release of pollutants and effluents; the approaches to controlling industrial processes in order to minimize pollutants entering the environment; and the ap- proaches to restoring environmental ecosystems. Markets in the developed world for environmental technologies are large, and export markets in the developing world can be expected to follow in the years ahead. The market today for environ- mental technologies is about $300 billion a year and may reach $425 billion in a few years. DEFINING THE PROBLEMS As World Bank and other reports point out, perhaps the most pressing global environmental problem is the lack of clean water. People in developing countries suffer from a disproportionate amount of water-borne diseases. For example, the United Nations Children's Fund estimates that about 40,000 children die every day, mainly from preventable water-borne diseases. But to solve this problem there is no need to develop new technologies: it has been known for many decades how to devise sanitary water supply systems. The second most pervasive environmental problem is urban air pollution. Here again much is known about the technologies for controlling this problem, but as populations continue to concentrate in large cities, this problem will only grow worse. In fact, the number of cities with populations of over 10 million is expected to grow from the present 13 to over 25 in the next 15 years. These megacities will give new urgency to the need to address urban air pollution and other urban environmental problems. At an even more fundamental level is soil erosion. Soil quantity and quality are being rapidly depleted in many countries of the world. As the pressure to increase food production continues, lands that are more marginal will be brought into use. Just as for water sanitation, however, the technologies to improve soil conservation are well known; they only need to be adopted worldwide. Finally, there are the truly global environmental problems whose causes and effects are widely dispersed and whose resolution will require international ac- tion. These problems include but are not restricted to acid deposition, climatic warming, ocean oil spills, and loss of biodiversity. PROSPECTS FOR THE FUTURE The present great wave of new technologies and technological concepts collectively represents a new environmental technological offensive. Properly directed and financed, this offensive could open pathways to an environmentally
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ROBERT M. WHITE 241 sustainable future as well as restore damaged environments. Technological inno- vation by itself is a necessary, but insufficient, means to that end. Wise socioeco- nomic and political choices also must be made as society comes to grips with the inevitable trade-offs between environment, population size and distribution, life- style, and economic resources, to form the basis for guiding useful technological development. Take, for example, the progress that has been made in energy technologies. The production, distribution, and use of energy have widespread, diverse envi- ronmental consequences. But advances in energy production, storage, and use now make the entire energy supply and demand system more efficient and less demanding of fossil and other fuels. Combined-cycle gas turbines, new emission- control systems, improved technologies for suppressing auto emissions, increased use of less-polluting fossil fuels such as natural gas, increased use of renewable energy sources, as well as a host of new demand-side energy technologies such as more efficient lighting, appliances, and insulation are conscious attempts to mini . . . maze environmental Impacts. What is taking place is encouraging. In fact, the entire industrial approach to producing goods and services is being viewed in a new way as a living system. Just as in biological systems, industrial metabolism is measured by the inputs of energy and resources and by the outputs of useful products and "wastes" of various kinds-emissions to the atmosphere, effluents into rivers, solid wastes into landfills. Useful products also become wastes as soon as they are consumed and discarded. Although some of these discards and wastes can be used in other production processes, others, unfortunately, are widely dispersed and are irre- trievably dissipated into the environment. But one company's or person's waste can be another's valuable input an industrial analogy to natural ecosystems and the concept of industrial ecosys- tems is now taking hold. Natural ecosystems usually are sustainable or slowly changing except for external forces. The primary energy and resource inputs result in a food chain and the behavior patterns of living organisms that sustain themselves and their systems. There are few wastes in natural ecosystems. Wastes are generally inputs to other parts of the system, thereby sustaining the diversity of life and plant forms. Can technology help humans to mimic such natural systems? Could the wastes in one part of an industrial ecosystem become inputs to other parts of the system? Using technology, researchers should soon come close to providing acceptable systems for social choice. The present crude attempts to mimic natural ecosystems are but the first halting steps toward sustainable economic growth- the environmental Holy Grail. The practices needed are just beginning to be formulated and introduced. Recycling mimics some aspects of natural ecosys- tems, and a variety of recycling practices are now taking hold. For example, scrap iron has long been recycled to produce iron and steel, and attempts are being made to recycle aluminum, copper, and gold.
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242 Marshaling Technology for Development The incentives to recycle are largely economic in a free-market system. When free-market economic incentives are lacking, they have been created artifi- cially through legislated regulatory measures or taxes remedies for market fail- ures that cannot and do not reflect the costs of externalities. Some countries now mandate recycling through "take back" legislation in which the manufacturer takes responsibility for the reuse of product materials at the end of the product's useful life. Recycling of paper, glass, and other kinds of wastes also is now mandated in many communities. Certain mixtures of gasoline and oxidants, such as methanol or ethanol, are mandated as well to reduce auto emissions. In short, it is now possible to choose among economic costs and possibilities in order to elicit the desired environmental results. Even though people frequently lack the political will to accept the trade-offs in cost and lifestyles, technology can help to make these trade-offs more acceptable. Kalundborg, Denmark, is a particularly pertinent and successful example of the application of industrial ecological principles and the degree to which it is presently possible to mimic natural ecosystems. This small industrial city is home to a Statoil Corporation oil refinery; Denmark's largest power plant, Asnaes- verket; a plaster board manufacturing plant, Gyproc; and Novo Nordisk, a bio- technology plant that produces 45 percent of the world's insulin and 50 per- cent of the world's enzymes. In this city, which is surrounded by a farming community: refinery wastewater is used for power plant cooling; excess refinery gas and sulphur recovered by the refinery is used by Gyproc to produce plaster board; biological sludge from the pharmaceutical plant is used by farmers; steam from the power plant is used by the pharmaceutical company; fly ash from the power plant is used by cement manufacturers in a different town; and waste heat from the power plant is used by the municipality for its heating distribution system, as well as for fish farming. As a result, resource use is reduced: oil by 19,000 tons a year, coal by 30,000 tons a year, and water by 1.2 million tons a year. Emissions are reduced as well: carbon dioxide by 130,000 tons a year and sulphur oxide by 25,000 tons a year. Kalundborg is a very clean industrial town. Such examples are encouraging, but by themselves they will fall short of the goal of sustainable economic growth. It is in humanity's power, however, by investing its intellectual and financial resources in promising new technologies, to change population growth rates, the modes of food and energy production, and its industrial and agricultural processes. It is also possible to reverse and restore natural environmental systems that through neglect and misuse have deteriorated, notwithstanding the formidable cultural, religious, and social obstacles that must be overcome. The World Bank and others could invest in both the intellectual framework for advancing the concepts of industrial ecology and the actual demonstration in developing nations of new environmentally sound industrial practices. Also prom- ising as an area of focus for the World Bank is technological capacity-building. Scientists speak frequently of science capacity-building. In fact, the START pro
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ROBERT M. WHITE 243 gram proposed by the International Council of Scientific Unions would educate and train scientists in order to create an indigenous understanding of environmen- tal science. And the United States and other Western Hemisphere nations have agreed to an inter-American network of such environmental training centers. Another fruitful area is in the support of systems studies, not for prediction of the course of future events but to indicate possible areas of research at the inter- face between the forces that drive unsustainability: population, economics, envi- ronment, and technology. An overarching framework is needed for considering the complexity of the issue. Groups around the world that already are considering pathways to sustainability could progress much faster with additional support. Finally, improved ways of communicating and demonstrating best environ- mental practices in various industrial sectors are needed, as well as international support for promising environmental technologies. Sustainability is not a new concept; traditionally it has been applied in the management of renewable resources for example, fisheries and forestry. It is now time to enhance industry's ability to mimic natural ecosystems, thereby helping today's complex industrial society reach an acceptable level of sustainability. A vision of the environmental future essential to the survival of humanity is now emerging, and it is within society's power to make the choices and marshal the efforts necessary to travel this road. This is a task for global collaboration, and nothing could be more worthy of humanity than such a crusade. As humanitarian and environmentalist Rene Dubos has said, "Trends are not destiny." NOTES 1. World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future: A Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987). 2. Donella H. Meadows et al., The Limits of Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind (London: Earth Island Limited, 1972).
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Representative terms from entire chapter: