Third Place: Benjamin-Axel Mugema's "Sustainability: From Modernity to Humanity"

EarthzineAgriculture, Articles, Climate, Essay Contest 2009, Original, Politics

Uganda Martyrs University

Uganda Martyrs University

Benjamin-Axel Mugema
Uganda Martyrs University
Kampala, Uganda
e-nvironment: A sustainable future for our planet
From the time of the Industrial Revolution until the world war era, the primary concern for man was productivity and economic development. Until then, no significant attention was paid to the sustainable development issue. However, the later twenty-first century has been a time of reckoning. Man has come to accept the rather unfortunate fact that the world is headed for catastrophe. Drastic climatic changes, unpredictable food crises, strange maladies, global warming and other aggravated weather-related conditions are all telltale signs that there is a crisis at hand. To a regrettable extent, the causes of these conditions lie in man’s quest for a better and more friendly livelihood.
The discovery of more efficient defense mechanisms, coupled with tremendous technological improvement has ironically led to increased safety and security all over the world, developing countries notwithstanding. Thus, populations are increasing, much faster than the earlier centuries. With this augmentation in human population, there is a dire need for improved and more efficient services to humanity. Food provision, security, energy, health care particularly maternal health, safety, education, sustainable housing, and enhanced living standards are primary pre-requisites for any sort of development to occur.
The immediate concern in this case, is the natural environment. Successful integration between the natural and built environment should be achieved, for sustainability to be attained. While it is paramount for human conditions to improve, the circumstances need to be considered. Thus, alternative energy resources, sustainable architecture and educating people especially the youth about the need for a sustainable future is required since this future duly lies in our hands.
Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution suggested that man as he is today (Homo sapiens) developed from an earlier species of rather less advanced ‘humans’, so to speak. Though highly rejected, especially among the more religious, the theory nevertheless carries substantial significance. Darwin suggested that all life is related and has descended from a common ancestor. Thus, birds, animals, flowers and humans have a certain particular relation. However, due to natural selection, the superior species passed on their traits to their offspring in a continuous cycle which effectively meant that the inferior species would eventually die out. This is what has made man the most dominant creature on earth. On the other hand, the Holy Bible gives a simpler explanation. God created man and made him the most intelligent of His creations. This gave man absolute control over all other things on earth, both living and non-living. ‘Let us make man in our image and likeness to rule the fish in the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all wild animals on earth, and all reptiles that crawl upon the earth’ (Genesis 1: 26, 27.). The authority granted unto man by God is enormous and in effect, made man the most dominant creature on earth.
Needless to say, in both cases, human beings are the victors. Whether scientifically or religiously, the privilege to have utmost control and thus make decisions governing the future of the earth is what has principally led to the development that is occurring today. God gave us the ability to think, create, innovate, communicate better and live longer than anything that has ever existed. Even though Darwin’s theory calls to mind the era of dinosaurs and enormous waters, the Mesozoic era, the sort of development and advancement of the 21st century cannot possibly be compared to that era. Human ability and zeal to improve and enhance his standard of living has continuously made life on earth much easier and also hastened the development process. Thus, in whichever way man came to be, he is primarily the master of himself.
Again, this dispensation to make life-changing decisions, though positive on the surface has essentially led to all the dilemmas and crises that transpire today. While God made man the ruler of all things on earth, naturally, humanity had to equally select its own leaders. These leaders, though like man in his nature assumed the roles of decision makers and like God created us in His own image, we have the chance to manipulate His creations positively in order to make the world a better place. Hence, through these decision-makers, self-appointed or chosen, particular choices were made for a particular group of people which governed the actions that took place.
In the developmental context, however, resources were needed not only to carry out these actions but also to maintain human lifestyles. Resources were needed to create, to instruct, to innovate and to improve. In any case, God created the earth for man’s own enjoyment and wellbeing. ‘I give you all plants that bear seed everywhere on earth, and every tree bearing fruit which yields seed: they shall be yours for food. All green plants I give for food to the wild animals, to all the birds of heaven and to all the reptiles on earth, every living creature.‘ (Genesis 1: 29, 31). With all these at his disposal, man had the opportunity to develop and enhance his basic standards, with that reassurance that there were resources to do all this readily available. In a wider perspective, man could practically do anything that he wished and this in effect led to the need for more advanced ways of obtaining resources in a manner that was faster and more effective.
Fast forward to the late 18th century, where the end of feudalism in Britain brought about the start of the Industrial revolution. The British civil war had just ended and a large amount of infrastructure had been destroyed. There was also the issue of hastily increasing populations, fueled partly by the then on-going slave trade from Africa, and the dire need for semi-skilled and skilled labour to work in the ever-increasing factories. Thus, job seekers migrated from all over Europe, particularly Western Europe, to Britain, while the slaves were brought in to work on farms and in the homes of the British aristocrats. Technological advancement was taking place and production became more industrial than agricultural which hastened the necessity for raw materials to be readily available. Again, the issue of nature being man’s only supplier of resources comes in. The immediate resource hub became Africa, what with its extremely fertile soils and indigenous people that had not yet attained the level of development that Europe had reached and were thus willing to produce agricultural raw material to supply the Industrial Revolution. Of particular importance was the fact that Africa also possessed enormous mineral wealth which proved to be of great value to the up and coming technology industry in Europe. The driving force behind the Industrial Revolution was coal, a fossil fuel which replaced wood as the primary source of energy for industries and generation of electricity. The discovery of coal led to a rapid explosion in industry and consequently an inevitable increase in health, wealth and population.
Although technological advances over several millennia gave humans increasing control over the environment and the Industrial Revolution meant that more goods could be produced for human consumption, it also meant that pollution would be emitted to the sky and more natural resources would be exploited in the production process. As a result, pollution of water, air and soil escalated, while harmful waste increased astronomically. However, the human population explosion was probably the greatest impact that the Industrial Revolution had. From 1650 to 1850 the global population doubled from around 500 million to 1 billion people ( Populations in industrialized nations moved from rural areas to urban areas which also exacerbated the effect of rising pollution, in all forms. This soar in human numbers led to an exponential increase in consumption of resources. The path to wealth seemed rather straight since the prime concern then was substantial productivity and viable economic growth. The issue of sustainability per se was not of priority and even then, there existed a certain reluctance of decision-makers to come out of this ‘comfort zone’ created by the new and fast paced lifestyle. Thus, natural resources were depleted and since technological advancement had not yet fully created a recycling mechanism, all the harmful and toxic waste from factories was poorly disposed of. In any case, a large number of the resources that were being used were non-renewable which further augmented the impact negatively. Coal in itself did not exactly provide an alternative in case of scarcity since it proved to be readily available in large amounts and relatively efficient in production.
In all that industrialization did, it also told people that they had mastered nature and were now apart from and above it. Or so they thought.
The early 20th century however was a turn of mixed fortunes. On the one hand, resources were quickly running out and the imperative to seek for alternatives seemed to be looming ahead. On the other hand, environmental effects of industrialization were being felt. It became necessary to explore environmentalism as a necessity for human development and also for conservation of natural resources.
Concerns about the environment and impacts of industrialization on the environment had been expressed earlier on in the 1800s. In an essay by Thomas Malthus, he discusses overpopulation and attempts to create a rational theory governing population increase and the available resources. ‘…Assuming my postulata as granted, I say, that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked increases in a geometrical ratio,’ Malthus, 1798, Chapter 1. This basically means that the increase in population is inversely proportional to the ability of the earth to produce enough resources to provide for this population. Malthus noticed that the global population was rapidly growing and if unchecked would lead to a situation of deficiency of resources and inevitably food. Essentially, population increase propelled the need for more production, thus a United Nations population increase graph shown below would imply that the availability of sufficient resources in the next 100 years is not entirely realistic.
From the graph, the actual population corresponds with the estimated numbers between 1800 and 1950 and if the current trend continues, which is most likely, then the UN high estimate will occur. This accounts for up to 15 billion people, twice the current population. Interestingly, the rate of increase has also doubled.
There was also the period after World War II and the Great Depression when environmental concerns attracted a lot of interest. Increasing use of fossil fuels, plastics and synthetics were transforming the society while the ‘Green Revolution’ which was entirely based on synthetic fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides were having adverse effects on the environment. In Silent Spring (1962), Rachel Carson challenges mankind on the use of chemical pesticides and their impacts against nature. With particular reference to DDT, a chemical pesticide that was used to eradicate the parasite that spreads malaria, she demanded that man be more conscious about his environment considering that DDT had distinct severely negative effects to the environment and in the long run caused health problems to both plants and humans. Equally, the issue of man being the master of nature also contributed to climatic change. Though it is a major environmental issue today, climate change has been occurring over a period of more than sixty years. Environmental effects of human activities started to be widely studied about after the First World War. The fundamental organisations that took the first steps in research and awareness included the United Nations Organisation which particularly instituted the primary initiatives to counter carbon emissions. At the ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio de Janeiro, 1992, the UNO member states suggested a mechanism that would effectively reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In December 1997, in the Japanese city of Kyoto, the protocol was officially signed and came into force in February 2005. Essentially, industrialised nations were mandated to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2% compared to the year 1990. It sought to lower emissions from six particular greenhouse gases: carbondioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur hexaflouride and two other gas types, hydroflourocarbons and perflourocarbons.
The Kyoto protocol also included three other objectives: emissions trading-an administrative approach to control pollution by providing economic incentvies to reduce emissions of pollutants, clean development mechanism and joint implementation. The various nations involved gave specific limits of emissions that they would achieve until 2010, when the protocol will officially expire.
However, the current trends seem to portray that the protocol contradicts itself. While developed countries attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by searching for alternatives to reduce depletion of natural resources, they, in effect punctuate the entire problem. The replacement of natural foods with genetically modified foods which mature quicker, extensive use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers to control pests, enhancing defense mechanisms to provide security, production of ‘environmentally-friendly’ automobiles and poor land use have all had negative impacts to the climate. Many more resources are being used which are not accounted for and this is essentially the basis of sustainable development. Thus, industrialized nations have come to realize the scarcity of natural resources and in a bid to save the earth while catering for the increasing populations, now look up to artificial alternatives which are in the long run more dangerous.
It is therefore important to appreciate the fact that climate change is primarily fostered by carbon emissions into the atmosphere which arise from human activities. Combustion of fossil fuels to produce energy, use of aerosols, land uses like animal agriculture, construction and deforestation which eventually lead to ozone depletion. Carbon dioxide levels have been substantially high since the Industrial Revolution and levels have increased from 280 ppm1 to 387 ppm. Projections have it that it could further increase to between 535 ppm to 983 ppm. Increased land use to cater for urban sprawl and agriculture also has distinct climatic effects while cement manufacture per se contributes up to 5% of global man-made carbon emissions. Essentially, greenhouse gases that arise from burning fossil fuels create a layer which keeps the heat within the atmosphere. This, in effect, leads to an increase in overall temperatures. The increase in temperature is further escalated by deforestation. By cutting down trees, especially for settlement and farming, humidity is lost hence low rainfall levels occur. Generally, the effects of increased carbon levels in the atmosphere to climate are rather diverse and deep scientific research indicates the possibility of solar variations-intensification of the Ice Age and thus melting of glaciers which in effect increases sea levels and leads to flooding, change in rainfall patterns hence areas that are normally dry are likely to experience heavy rains while wet areas would have a grave reduction in rainfall levels. As such, the seasons would also change and there is a possibility of shorter winter periods and longer summers, particularly in the Northern hemisphere.
In recent years, however, climate changes have severely affected agriculture. While nature dictates that the amount of natural resources is sufficient for humanity, the recent course of events clearly contradicts this reality. The global food price crisis from 2007-2008 came at a time when global population has started increasing at a quicker rate. Various theories have come up to explain the causes of the food crisis and the debate still rages on. Unseasonable droughts in developing countries, due to unpredictable climate changes, have led to shifts in production and reduced harvests. The rising oil prices have heightened the prices of artificial fertilizers which have in turn raised food prices since they are inevitably used to quicken harvests. The increasing use of biofuels in developing countries as alternatives to energy production has led to scarcity of food. Maize, which is Africa’s principal food staple, has particularly suffered this consequence since it is also the primary cereal used in production of biofuels. The ‘food vs fuel’ phenomenon has occurred whereby food crops are being sacrificed to produce fuel. Essentially, humanity has depleted energy sources and the burning of fossil fuels has been rendered harmful to the environment. Thus, we are trying to solve a problem while inevitably creating another. Worse still, it is not certain that the raw materials of biofuels are sufficient to sustain global production. A World Bank policy research paper produced in July 2008 suggests that ‘…large increases in biofuels production in the United States and Europe are the main reason behind the steep rise in global food prices.’ German Chancellor Angela Merkel heavily disagreed with this claim and stated that poor agricultural policies and changing eating habits in developing countries seem to be the main causes of rising global food prices. Rising ozone levels which lead to changes in seasons and rainfall patterns have directly affected agricultural production. Thus a slump in food harvest quantities inevitably leads to an increase in prices. There is also the issue of civil unrest and insecurity in developing nations which means that farms are not entirely safe, thus food availability is uncertain.
Figure 1: Global Oil Consumption, 1980 – 2003

Figure 1: Global Oil Consumption, 1980 – 2003

Clearly, all these misdemeanors arise during man’s quest to achieve better living standards. Hence, a compromise on the environment and natural resources in an attempt to achieve optimum profit from production and sales only makes the already bad situation worse. While developed countries are taking advantage of the weak financial situation in developing nations to get raw materials, these developing nations eventually purchase the finished product at very high prices. Therefore, the global food crisis would still affect developing countries worse than developed countries when ironically, the most natural food is produced in Africa and Asia. Leaders and decision-makers need to choose what is essentially beneficial for their nations and people while putting the future generations at priority and not acting selfishly. Developing countries should be in position to ‘help’ themselves and not rely on donor aid and grants. Former US president Bill Clinton highlighted at the UNO World Food Day on October 16th 2008 that ‘Food is not a commodity like others. We should go back to a policy of maximum food self-sufficiency. It is crazy for us to think we can develop countries around the world without increasing their ability to feed themsleves.’ Again, amidst all these predicaments lies the natural environment and man. Suffice as it might to say that man has mastered nature, the fact is still, unfortunately clear: man needs nature more than nature needs man. It is also obvious that the activities of humans all have a certain negative impact on the natural environment. These negative effects in one way or the other eventually turn back to humanity since we have, we do and we shall always turn to nature for any solutions to the problems that we face today.
The global food price crisis also calls to mind the drastic health issues affecting, especially, developing nations.
Health, as a natural pre-requisite for man is being altered by human activity. Strange new diseases are being discovered while medecine is proving to be a scarce commodity to many. Needless to say, where health is affected, lives are lost and many more are put at stake. For any sort of development to be successfully achieved, people need to have access to adequate health care. The changing eating habits, increasing populations, increased urban areas and poor government policies have changed the health sector of particularly developing nations. In context, various theories can easily defend this, but the relationship between humanity and the natural environment seems to be at the centre of the entire crisis. The over-dependence on artificial medicines and genetically modified foods which are not entirely sustainable has created a new problem and now we are trying to solve it while creating others. More attention needs to be paid the notion that health issues are environmentally derived. Research scientist Anthony J. Micheal proposed that, ‘…health is not a resource to be consumed to generate wealth but should serve as an index of environmentally sustainable development.’ Health should not be looked at as a reductionist science.
Sustainability in a broader sense would mean the ability to maintain a certain process in its current state. In relation to humanity and human development, sustainability and sustainable development refers to development that ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,’ The Brundtland Commission. Ideally, humans are mandated to consume resources in such a way that everyone receives a fair share. Although sustainability quickly calls to mind the environment, there are three basic aspects that make up sustainable development: economic development, social development and inevitably, environmental development. However several critiques have come out to suggest that cultural development and diversity should be at the forefront of sustainable development citing the various dynamic cultures as the main cause of the changing lifestyles which in turn lead to the different human activities that influence it. Sustainability is an eclectic concept and involves diverse processes and systems. However, considering that all resources that humanity consumes are natural, it is only right that the natural environment be the primary priority in the quest to achieve a sustainable future for our planet. It is in this context that humanity and the natural environment need to strike a balance. On a planet where 20% of the population consumes 80% of the total resources available, one is left to wonder what the other 80% consume. Needless to say, again, developing nations are the most gravely affected. Developed nations insist on the need to competely eradicate pollution, a move which would not only stall any sort of industrial progress in developing countries but also hinder modernisation. In any case, the idea here seems rather simple;– to put humanity before modernity. Under the guise of modernisation and technological advancement, humans have put their lives at stake and now the repercussions seem more apparent than before. Ultimately, it is all a financially driven initiative and the poorer countries suffer most. While everything is being mechanised, developing nations, which cannot mechanise fail to produce sufficiently for the international market and thus remain poor. It is therefore paramount to compromise selfish politics and financial constraints and focus on globalisation since this issue affects us all.
A number of issues need to be addressed, primarily successful integration between the natural and built environment. In his paper, The Strategy of Ecosystem Development (1969), Dr. Eugene P. Odum stresses the need for man to conserve the already fragile ecosystems bearing in mind the fact that it is through nature that we get life, ‘…man does not live by food and fibre alone, he also needs a balanced CO2-O2 atmosphere.’ From the problems addressed above, the burning of fossil fuels, inasmuch as it provides the all-important energy, it also deprives of the earth sufficient oxygen and carbon dioxide which are necessary for the earth’s ecosystems to survive. It is also of equal importance to address the deforestation issue. Up to 52% of the world’s biomass is contained in forests as vegetation, ground cover in form of leaves that drop off trees and animals that dwell in forests. In their natural state, forests particularly, the Brazilian Amazon, have by far the largest impact on global climate. Besides their effect in controlling rainfall patterns across the earth, forests also act as nature reserves for the earth’s fragile ecosystems. The burning of forests would therefore, unfortunately, not only destroy a high amount of biomass but also effectively distort weather patterns around the world. The ever increasing global temperatures have been attributed in part to uncontrolled deforestation. The imperative is apparent for humanity to find alternatives to timber or better still, give back to the environment what we get from it, by, for example planting more trees. However, it is not as simplistic as it appears. Many times, forests are cleared to provide land for settlement and agricultural projects and cannot be replaced in this case. Nobel Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai, who is famous for her Green Belt Movement which sparked off a tree planting revolution in her native country, Kenya, realized the need to act fast, ‘in a few decades, the relationship between the environment, resources and conflict may seem almost as obvious as the connection we see today between human rights, democracy and peace.’ The future is entirely upon us to redefine and make sustainable; forests being the first priority. If we are to change the current climatic conditions and achieve friendlier circumstances, then we should compromise on human reluctance to come out of this ‘comfort zone’ and start using forests more wisely without necessarily considering material motives. This also goes hand-in-hand with the rather controversial search for alternative energy sources after petroleum.
Energy use comes in as another major issue that needs to be addressed urgently. Comprehensive studies indicate a rather alarming rate in decline of the availability of oil used and clearly the amount is about to reach a limit that cannot be increased by ingenuity or determination. From the period of the Industrial Revolution, when coal was the only known source of energy, to the commercialization of oil in the early 1800s, there was potentially no significant cause of worry. Besides, oil explorers were discovering many more unexploited oil wells. Even in extreme cases of oil price increases, the motives were often politically inclined and entirely independent of the amounts available. However, recent years have shown that the rate of depletion of petroleum resources is remarkably higher than the rate at which it is produced. The graphs below represent an estimate of world oil demand by region from 1980 to 2003, in comparison to world oil production by region in the same amount of time.
Figure 2: Regional Crude Oil Production, 1980 – 2003

Figure 2: Regional Crude Oil Production, 1980 – 2003

Both figures indicate a sort of balance in oil use and production. However, from the early ’90s, global consumption has been increasing at a steady rate due to equally increasing populations and technological advancement that requires more energy. The production rate has also been increasing steadily although, clearly, more gallons are consumed than produced. Unfortunately, oil resources are running out quicker than man can possibly replace which in a rather sarcastic way is a good thing. It would effectively reduce carbon emissions to the atmosphere, which would ‘repair’ the global climate and make energy use more environmentally friendly. In any case, as David Delaney states in Oil Depletion, 2002, ‘modern economies grow only if transportation grows. Less oil, less transportation, smaller economy. More oil, more transportation, bigger economy…’ It is therefore, fundamentally important to have oil, even though alternatives are necessary. Natural gas is already being used as a source of energy especially for power and transportation purposes.
Predictably, the price of oil will not exactly signal shortages until the decline is apparent since even many years after the peak, there will be a situation of less energy at potentially high prices. This unfortunately does not signify an increase in supply, but an ‘extinction,’ so to speak. Worse still, the large amounts of global economies and investments being invested to obtain alternative energy sources are much larger than the energy investments needed to obtain fossil fuels. It is not even clear if some of these alternatives shall serve as sources of energy. In any case, the other energy sources particularly solar, geothermal, wind and biomass energy should be improved and effected.
While many technological discoveries and innovations are aware of the ecological aspect, a political motive is necessary. Ultimately, the choice lies in the hands of the decision-makers to create the right conditions for any progress to be achieved. The United Nation’s Kyoto Protocol which terminates in 2010 should come up with clear and comprehensive solutions that are practical particularly for developing nations which will inevitably require the petroleum if they are to further develop. Therefore, adequate distribution of resources is paramount for such goals to be achieved and the fundamental problem of finding alternative energy sources must be solved.
Education is a very strong and pivotal tool in development today. Through education, man has been able to impart knowledge to generations, to create, innovate, improve and shape the world. It comes, therefore, as no surprise that the UNESCO has branded this decade (2005-2014), The United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. The basic goal is to have the policies, ideals and practices of sustainable development integrated into all sectors of education. Clearly, there is a motive, and the idea to have this sort of education from a very early age presents itself as an array of hope in the quest to obtain a sustainable future. Besides environmental sustainability, this educational effort will also teach young people to grow up with just and rightful thinking for the present and future generations. Education however should not only be theoretical but also practical such that it becomes applicable after school.
The future of our planet lies solely in our hands since we are the people that need it most. Divinity teaches us to respect God’s creation and keep it holy, while fate has taught us that we should have learned this lesson earlier. Now we are paying for what we did decades and centuries ago. While modernization took over the world, man momentarily seemed to brush the humanity issue aside and focus solely on this initiative. Technological advancement quickly took over human development and health concerns. Today, man has realized that man is necessary for man to develop. Modernity becomes useless without the humanity aspect. If development deprives man of certain basic needs, then it is not sustainable. If development does not cater for the future, then it is not sustainable. If development is financially based, and politically motivated, then it is not sustainable. This paper seeks to address the fundamental issue that sustainability is possible and very necessary by first critically looking at the factors that have led to the current situation and then suggesting the primary factors that should be dealt with in the first place.

‘man’s attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself? We are challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature but of ourselves.’
Rachel Carson

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1ppm – one part per million.