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What is the Meaning of Sustainable Development?

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMay 15, 2012 7:54 PM


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In the run-up to next month's Rio Earth Summit, we're going to see a steady stream of bad news about the global environment. When that happens, let's hope that some of our respectable media do more than regurgitate NGO press releases and talking points. Alas, the Guardian shows us what not to do in this article on a report jointly produced by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Zoological Society of London, and the Global Footprint Network. The Guardian piece is merely a platform for the report's highlights. It provides no outside assessment of the claims made. For example, evidently, the NGO report asserts that populous urban centers are bad for the planet. Here's what the Guardian says:

The world's cities have seen a 45% increase in population since 1992, according to the Global Footprint Network, and urban residents typically have a much larger carbon footprint than their rural counterparts.

Really? And all this time I thought that my Brooklyn footprint was on the lower end of the scale. I'm surprised to hear that my humble apartment in a high density neighborhood and my reliance on mass transit and local shopkeepers is contributing to a carbon footprint larger than that of non-city dwellers. Perhaps I should consider moving my family to the country or the suburbs, where a bigger house would support more children and a place to put all my fun stuff. True, we'd require several cars to meet our transportation and shopping needs, but I'm sure that wouldn't raise our overall carbon footprint by much. Yes, now that I think of it, I bet that a free-standing tudor or colonial in a bucolic setting, in a county with abundant strip malls, would be much better for the global environment (including the preservation of biodiversity). Sarcasm aside, I started reading through the NGO report, but got hung up at this sentence in an introduction by Jim Leape, Director General of WWF International:

We can meet all of our energy needs from sources like wind and sunlight that are clean and abundant.

Okay, stop right there. I'm going to have to get back to you on the report after I quit choking on that assertion. Here's the thing about the upcoming United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+ 20, because it's the 20th anniversary of the first such gathering: We're going to hear a lot about how "the earth is going downhill," as Leape says in this CNN story. There's also going to be much hand-wringing over the conference's downsized goals and chaotic logistics, as this AP dispatch suggests. It would be nice if equal attention was paid to how humanity fit into the picture, and not just as a blight on the earth. Environmentalists should keep in mind that the have-nots of the world don't yet have the luxury of being concerned with biodiversity or carbon footprints.

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