Beginning in the early 1970s, international organizations began to investigate and publish evidence of the continuous destruction of the environment worldwide. The Club of Rome, a think tank comprising seventy individuals from twenty-five countries, published three reports in a project they called “The Predicament of Mankind.” The first of these valuable reports, The Limits of Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind, written by Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William Behrens III, depended on computer-driven mathematical models to show that the supply of natural resources could not support the then-current rate of growth of the human population and the expansion of industrial production. In the decades that followed, Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Randers published two subsequent reports. In Beyond the Limits: Confronting Global Collapse, Envisioning a Sustainable Future, they underscored the continuing possibility that human beings would exhaust the planet’s natural resources, but they also pointed out various possibilities for avoiding the dangers while improving the quality of people’s lives. In the last report, The Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, they complained that in three decades the two earlier reports had caused only endless debates and halfhearted responses to the global ecological challenges. Nonetheless, the authors remained convinced that techniques such as visioning, networking, learning, loving, and truth telling could convince billions of citizens around the world to push the industrial society toward sustainability.
While the Club of Rome pursued computer models, the United Nations began an extensive, well-organized effort to gather information about environmental destruction. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, which issued from a meeting in Stockholm in June 1972. This declaration, which lists twenty-six principles, states that the protection of the environment affects the well-being of people worldwide, and that every government should work to prevent the mindless destruction of nature. In 1997, the UNEP began publishing Global Environment Outlook reports (released approximately every five years), which offer comprehensive overviews of the environmental conditions worldwide at a given point in time. Although the first of these reports showed progress in reducing environmental challenges in some countries since 1992, it said the situation worldwide remained bleak. Progress was too slow to address the serious problems. The second report revealed that the global emissions of CO2 exceeded four times the totals from 1950, and that 25 percent of the world’s mammal species were at risk of extinction. The third report, intended to show “past, present, and future perspectives,” revealed that human population growth had outpaced agricultural production, and—worse—that resources were being wasted. The fourth report, subtitled “Environment of Development,” made several recommendations to reduce environmental problems; the fifth, “Environment for the Future We Want,” acknowledged that those recommendations had not reduced the problems during the subsequent five-year period. The fifth observed that no specific solution seemed able to prevent the destruction of the environment, and called for international cooperation in addressing poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation in comprehensive ways. Collecting the information for the sixth report began in Berlin, Germany, in October 2014; that report will combine regional reports to offer a comprehensive picture of the environmental situation worldwide. Read in sequence, these reports provide an invaluable time line of global recognition of the threat of environmental depredation.
The United Nations has operated several other programs related to sustainable development, and the findings of those programs are available online and in print. For example, in the early 1990s the UN convened the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at which delegates agreed to promote education and public awareness of problems related to sustainable development. The results were published in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. In 2004, the UN designated UNESCO to lead the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD) program. Framework for the UNDESD International Implementation Scheme lays out the plans for the DESD. The DESD scheme committed UNESCO to involving a full range of partners from international, regional, national, and area groups. The scheme calls for sustainable development to be taught in schools (K-12) by weaving it into various courses so it relates to the diverse types of information. In higher education, sustainable development should be a topic of research. The UN helped develop a package of information and resources for education providers.
The United Nations’ final report on the DESD, Shaping the Future We Want: UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014), claimed that the DESD had activated hundreds of thousands of people worldwide to reorient education (both policies and curricula) toward learning to live and work sustainably. The report concluded that the most important lesson was the necessity for strong political leadership to move projects from policy formation to demonstration projects to teaching operations across the curriculum.
The ability of universities to incorporate sustainability in their course content and research agendas varied. Sustainability Education: Perspectives and Practice across Higher Education, edited by Paula Jones, David Selby, and Stephen Sterling, examines such efforts at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom. The editors and all the contributors were affiliated with the university. The volume is interesting for the light it sheds on obstacles encountered and the reforms the university could implement to counter those difficulties. The obstacles had to do with the tradition of academic freedom, faculty members’ unfamiliarity with the details of sustainability, and a university ethos unfavorable to sustainability. The reforms included making sustainability a subject for investigation rather than dissemination; providing opportunities for faculty to learn about sustainability; and making progress in imparting sustainability practices part of the salary determination system.
The UN’s focus on the importance of education in changing social attitudes about the environment resulted in numerous papers and journal articles about how individuals could change their outlooks in service of sustainable development. Many of those writings are collected in Education for Sustainable Development: Papers in Honour of the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014), edited by Brian Chalkley, Martin Haigh, and David Higgit. These essays seek to explain what sustainable development meant and how colleges and universities could aid the program. In addition, several individuals involved in the UN effort wrote textbooks to spread the program’s ideas. For example, Jeffrey Sachs, special adviser to Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon, wrote The Age of Sustainable Development as a textbook for a global massive open online course (MOOC). Sachs credits the 1980 publication of World Conservation Strategy: Living Resource Conservation for Sustainable Development, by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, with establishing the popularity of the concept of “sustainable development.” The UN’s Millennium Development Goals Report 2015 claims that the effort had been the most successful antipoverty movement in history, and the UN set for itself a new set of goals and published them as Sustainable Development Goals. These are similar to the millennium goals, except they speak more directly to such things as managing forests, combating desertification, ending loss of biodiversity, and conserving the oceans. The time period for accomplishing these goals is fifteen years, ending in 2030.
The destruction of environment may result in conflict between the mechanisms of the global economic system and the natural processes of the world’s environmental system. In The Wealth of Nature: How Mainstream Economics Has Failed the Environment, Robert Nadeau argues that environmental protection contradicts economic theory. The popular neoclassical economic perspective prevents people from recognizing this incompatibility and protects the industrial system as it is. Other commentators show how industrialists used concern for the environment to sell goods produced in unsustainable ways. Heather Rogers’s Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution investigates three areas in which environmental advocates tried to limit destructive practices: food production, home building, and transportation. In each case, she found that the products offered in stores were incorrectly labeled as being produced in environmentally safe ways. For example, food processors in the West bought produce from sources in countries that ignored the organic standards of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). Food producers accepted fruits or vegetables grown with such unsustainable practices as clearing native forests to raise organic crops. By ignoring the pollution their methods caused, suppliers could produce and sell their products at less cost. In the wake of Rogers’s disclosure, Naomi Klein argued for a mass protest movement in her This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Klein claimed that the abolitionist movement in the nineteenth century demonstrated a tactic that could lead to the end of the domination of capitalism. This tactic was to focus on the immorality of environmental destruction. She called for extensive publicity that showed how capitalism allowed a few people to garner obscene profits while their industries destroyed the environment.
Environmental ethics challenges narrow notions of market-based economics. In their edited collection Democracy and the Claims of Nature: Critical Perspectives for a New Century, Ben Minteer and Bob Pepperman Taylor reveal the considerable disagreement among the advocates of environmentalism. This is especially true when theorists consider whether or how democracies can advance environmental protection. Minteer and Taylor point out that theorists such as Alexis de Tocqueville complained that democracy increased the selfishness of citizens to the point that they thought only of their own advantages. Interestingly, the editors claim, many environmental philosophers rely on Tocqueville’s analysis to find ways to turn democratic tendencies toward environmentalism.
In fairness, some scholars do not think capitalism is the culprit. For example, in Nature Unbound: Conservation, Capitalism and the Future of Protected Areas, Dan Brockington, Rosaleen Duffy, and Jim Igoe point out that the extent of protected areas worldwide increased from 1985 to 1995 from about 2.5 million square kilometers to about 3 million. Although the conventional wisdom is that officials will protect areas from private exploitation, this expansion took place when nongovernmental organizations such as the World Bank pressured officials to reduce their control of local affairs. The authors also point out that the extinction of species has accelerated during periods of increased funding for mainstream conservation programs. The complex processes that brought about these ironic developments demand that environmental protection policies be rethought.
Two other reports are worthy of mention. The first is The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review, which reports on an extensive study—commissioned by the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer and conducted by Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank and head of the Government Economic Service—outlining the costs of moving to a low-carbon economy and adapting to climate change. Stern and his fellow authors drew six conclusions, including that the worst impacts of climate change were yet to come, and they predicted that the fallout from climate change will be devastating unless people modify their behaviors—that efforts to stabilize the climate will be expensive, but ignoring the problems will be more expensive. All countries, the report warned, will have to work together to control climate change. The other publication is John Houghton’s Global Warming: The Complete Briefing, first published in 1994 and now in its fifth edition. Houghton reports on the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (which won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, jointly with Al Gore). Houghton chaired some of the panels.
Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. United Nations Environment Programme/United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, 1972.
Global Environment Outlook [GEO]. United Nations Environment Programme .
Global Environment Outlook 2000. United Nations Environment Programme. London: Earthscan Publications, 1999.
Global Environment Outlook 3: Past, Present and Future Perspectives. United Nations Environment Programme. London: Earthscan Publications, 2002.
Global Environment Outlook 4: Environment for Development. United Nations Environment Programme. Valletta, Malta: Progress Press, 2007.
Global Environment Outlook 5: Environment for the Future We Want. United Nations Environment Programme. Valletta, Malta: Progress Press, 2012.
Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. United Nations Environment Programme/Environment for Development. 1992.
Framework for the UNDESD International Implementation Scheme. UNESCO Education Sector.
World Conservation Strategy: Living Resource Conservation for Sustainable Development, prepared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN, 1980.
The Millennium Development Goals Report, 2015. United Nations.
Sustainable Development Goals: 17 Goals to Sustain Our World. United Nations. 2015.