The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
The Great Debate
The term “sustainability” crept into the business lexicon slowly, by way of the environmental movement. It no longer means covering operating costs with profits, the definition I learned at Harvard Business School six years ago. Instead, it’s morphed into a blurry term that fits into whatever suitcase you want it to — a catchall for everything “socially good,” whatever that means.
Recently my family and I went through photos we had taken in Scotland. These images brought back memories of my fascination with the pristine Scottish natural environment. There are the breathtaking highlands, the sparkling lochs, the magnificent glens and the abundant wildlife. All these reminded me of Liaoning, my home province.
While the climate change discussion in Washington is moving at a glacial pace, nature is responding to climate change at record speed. The animal, plant and insect kingdoms aren’t interested in public policy. They don’t read political blogs. They adapt because they have to. They must change to survive.
Since Apr. 26, a crusading forestry activist, a muckraking journalist and a 14-year-old girl have been killed in Cambodia because they tried to safeguard the country’s dwindling land reserves. They are all victims of a decade-long battle over Cambodia’s ecological future, a fight that in the past two years has turned more bloody and corrupt. Their deaths offer the world a stark vision of how crony capitalism has replaced totalitarianism as the threat to human rights in Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, the price of a human life pales in comparison with a blank check.
When I was a graduate student at the University of Kansas, the pesticide DDT was very much on my mind. My assistantship in 1953 involved research on the evolution of DDT-resistance in fruit flies. It quickly became clear to all of us in this research group that the broadcast use of pesticides was a losing and dangerous game. When I attempted to raise butterflies in New Jersey in the 1940s, bringing food plants in from nature usually resulted in the caterpillars dying. In those days, widespread spraying of DDT to control mosquitoes coated much of the countryside with poison. In the lab it was easy to use selection to make flies impervious to DDT in some 10 generations, or, in contrast, so susceptible that they would drop dead at a whisper of that “miracle” chemical’s name. Evolution of resistance tended to make continuous use of any pesticide inefficient. The usual response of the chemical industry was to recommend increasing the dose or to substitute more toxic compounds, making pest control even more expensive and dangerous.
The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio was marked by optimism and hope, but much of the buzz about the upcoming Rio+20 meeting is skeptical and cynical. Critics say the Rio process has been unduly bureaucratic and hasn’t lived up to its goals. They are branding Rio+20 as a failure before it has even begun. President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron are sitting it out. Some even say that in the radically decentralized Internet Age, the days when government leaders or U.N. bodies can set global agendas by fiat are long gone.