Ethics and Sustainable Development

The word ethics correlated to the question of sustainable development becomes, in my opinion, the main principle through which to drive the whole ideological process that must be at the base of this great, epoch-making, yet to be implemented revolution.
The global question of reference becomes trinomial: Economics, Ethics and Sustainable development, the interconnection of which is by now commonly recognised, represent three vast areas. As is natural, the specialists of each of these three sectors see this interconnection through their own particular point of view.
Among all the point of views, the principal of the common good, and in this case, the universal common good, seems to me to be the most suitable to act as a link between the three elements: economics, ethics and sustainable development. This principle requires that the global society be organised in such a way as to ensure that every man can have the possibility to achieve his full potential.

Personal achievement depends on the effort made by all to look for the common good. In fact, the development we are speaking about- a sustainable development, considered as a component of an integral human development and which is based on three pillars, economic, social and environmental- must regard everyone, in the present and in the future.
In this universality, there is a double root: ethical and economic-functional. The ethical one is based on the principal of the eminent dignity of each human being, and for this it is opportune to direct the political principles towards the construction of a world in which each man, without exception of race, religion or nationality, can live a fully human life, free from the servitude which are imposed by humans and from a nature which has not yet been sufficiently controlled. The second root, the economic-functional one, sinks into the observation that, if development is not universal, if it does not reach every population, then it is not effective because it is deprived of the active contribution of many and because the areas of underdevelopment are, in the long term, a cause of unbalance which upset the positive dynamics of the development itself.
To achieve a development which has been conceived in this way, that is to say, both human and integral, one must never lose sight of the interior parameter of man, that parameter which is in the specific nature of the human being, a parameter which has been put aside by a materialistic culture; that corporal and spiritual nature which, in its duality, composes all of man. In this sense, the definition given by John Paul II is of interest when he raises the question of an “authentic human ecology”, stressing how we worry too little about protecting moral conditions.
This is the reason why it is interesting to observe what is happening with regard to the question of sustainable development, the decisions and the actions which the international community takes and puts into practice in order to achieve it.
In fact, since 1992, the year of the United Nations Conference on the “environment and development”, better known as the Conference of Rio, the theme of sustainable development has been widely debated in the heart of the international community. It must be said that the start of reflections on this matter was promising, for the first principle of the Declaration of Rio states. “Human beings are at the centre of the preoccupations for sustainable development. They have the right to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature”.
Besides, if promoting the dignity of human beings means to promote rights- and in the question under examination, the right to development and to a healthy environment- this also means remembering the rights, that is, the responsibilities towards oneself, towards others, towards the gifts of nature which in any case is the place where human life is protected.
Now, in order to be sustainable, development must find a balance between the three objectives already mentioned: the economic, social and environmental ones, in order to assure the well-being of today without jeopardising that of future generations (see the Brundtland report of 1987). Ecological sustainability is possible only in the context of social development and economic growth, and therefore the elimination, or eradication, of poverty, to use the terminology of international bodies, is a crucial component of sustainable development.
Yet, if it is true that poverty and squalor constitute a menace to sustainability in all its aspects, the contrary is also true. In fact, if today the greatest environmental problems are global problems, there can be no doubt that those who are hit hardest by this are the poorest populations rather than the well-off ones. Just to give a few examples: it is the poor who usually live in the worst environments, in the outskirts of cities or in shanty towns; it is again the poor who suffer the greatest damage in environmental accidents because they live in places which are more exposed to such accidents. Furthermore, many populations in poor countries acquire the essential resources necessary for living from agriculture. For them, the environment is not a luxury, a composite of essential means for subsistence: hunger, malnutrition, and forced migration derive from environmental degradation, such as the destruction of fishing or forest resources and so on.
For this reason one of the positive signs of our times is the permanent importance that the fight against poverty has assumed even within the international community. In particular, the ethical character of this struggle constitutes a meeting point for the international community. In the Declaration of the summit on social development, held in Copenhagen in 1995, three years after the Conference in Rio, the leaders of states and governments undertook at point 2 “to act in order to eliminate poverty in the world through national interventions performed with determination and through international cooperation, because we consider it as an imperative ethical, social, political and economical question for humanity”. The situation in the world, however, especially among the poorest of the poor, is dramatic: it is enough to think that in 2000, in terms of human resources, 1.3 billion human beings were living below the poverty level, that is, with less than a dollar a day, while another 1.6 billion were living with less than two dollars. As is known, income is only one of the means of measuring poverty. The situation seems even more serious if we consider this phenomenon in a broader and more realistic sense, taking into account the deprivation of something; the lack of prospects in life, the lack of years of schooling, scarce health care, even basic health care, or the possibility to accede to drinkable water, not to mention more in general the impossibility to participate.
The international community understands this perfectly well, so much so that one of the first objectives of the so-called Millennium Objectives- indicated in a document signed by representatives of the UN, the OECD (organisation for economic cooperation and development), the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank- is that to halve the number of inhabitants of the planet living in absolute poverty in the period between 1990 and 2015. Since then, starting from the Millennium summit in New York in September 2000, there has not been a United Nations conference, or a conference of one of its specialized agencies, summits of heads of states and governments at a world or local level, among industrialised countries or countries in the process of development, which has not reasserted the priority of the fight against absolute poverty and the achievement of this aim.
In all this context, one of the other new phenomena, at least for its proportion, is globalisation which is neither good nor evil a priori, despite the fact that here and there exist stupid movements for or against it, even using the characteristics of the path of history in order to be involved in “politics” (even this is a sign of poverty).
Some more evident characteristics of globalisation need, however, to be analysed, and among these is the increase in competitiveness, which produces a social harm that seems, at least for now, inevitable: the increase in inequality. In fact, the gap between the rich and the poor has become more evident, even in countries which are economically more advanced, and a sense of precariousness seems to be diffused, especially among younger generations.
In short, we are faced with a paradoxical situation in which, though the resources are not insufficient, as is globally recognised, thanks also to, we must admit, globalisation, the so-called relative poverty of three billion people has become more acute. Thus, apart from the case of countries which are very poor, the problem lies in an inadequate and unjust distribution of resources, for various reasons, at a national and international level.
For this reason, a “globalisation of solidarity” is necessary (cf the Vatican Document Centesimus Annus, 36)
This ethical approach has to start with the question of the international debt of poor countries. But if governmental realism wants to recognise that the debt of some countries can not be collected – which in part is what has happened- it is important that the mechanisms that have been studied and already drawn up to give some solutions to both the creditor nations and the International monetary fund be applied at least within the time limits which have been established. It is also important to assure that the sums which correspond to the debt which has been cancelled are really employed by the governments of the debtor countries on social projects, above all on health and education.
One of the more durable ways to enact solidarity at a global level is that of bringing back equality in international commerce by eliminating protectionist barriers. More effort is needed to assure that every partner has the opportunity to gain benefits from the opening of their markets and from the unrestrained circulation of goods, services and capital. In fact, in today’s world, commerce, development and the fight against poverty are closely tied.
Furthermore, it is universally recognised today that the key to development in general, and that of sustainable development in particular, is to be found in science and technology, and in these sectors the principal problems are the considerable obstacles in the transfer of “know-how” connected to technological progress from the rich countries, which have it to poor ones. If we consider that most of these are found in tropical areas where life expectancy is around fifty and if we remember that in the world more than 861 million adults, of which two thirds are women, are not able to read and write and more than 113 million children do not go to school, we can understand that those initiatives dealing with health and education are of utmost importance.
Though the negative effects of globalisation are mostly attributable to inadequate governance, also because of the inability to adapt at the same speed of the rapid changes in today’s society, it is also true that some of the gaps in governance at a national level in poor countries are well known, above all to the inhabitants of those countries themselves. The first measures to take in order to fill them could be the following: resolve the numerous situations of conflict, the majority of which are ethnic in origin; reduce spending on arms; fight corruption and stop the flight of capital to foreign countries; encourage, as said, educational and sanitary programmes in order to create systems, even elementary ones, of social security. Above all in the field of sustainable development, it is also necessary to encourage the participation of the local population in their own development in respect of the subsidiary principle. In the poorest countries, some progress is being made in this respect, even if with great effort. To give an example, the initiative of the Monetary Fund and of the World Bank to reduce the debt of poor countries which are highly in debt, known as the HIPC initiative and which has highly complex mechanisms, foresees, among other things, the presentation of an action plan known as the Poverty Reduction Strategic Plan (PRSP). It regards long term plans which must be elaborated by local governments with ample consultation with the civilian society. It is needless to try to hide the difficulties that this consultation encounters, above all, as in many cases, when in the presence of governments which are not truly democratic and in countries where there are often no registers of births, marriages and deaths, where property rights are at the best of times uncertain and where it is difficult to understand what the land registries consist of. Despite this, it is positive to observe how the principle of participation has become a shared principle.
At the level of global governance, the difficulties that a multi-lateral system which was created after the Second World War has in facing the complexities of a globalized world and the multiple hotspots of our days have never been more evident. It is enough to consider the strong protests seen at every G7/G8 meeting, the criticisms levelled at the international financial institutions or the composition and the working mechanism of the United Nations Security council. These criticisms are often the reflection of a positive consolidation in the sense of global citizenship, which becomes a reality in the increasing number and influence of Non-Governmental Organisations. Perhaps the time has come for these to play a more formal role in international public life.
In the field of sustainable development, faced with the deterioration of the environment and the fragmentation of the international institutions created by the many treaties on the matter, global governance has been called for by many sides. In fact we must recognise that though there exists a relevant organism in the United Nations, UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme), due to the mandate given it and for the scarce resources allocated to it, there exists at present a weakness which is quite evident in the so-called environmental pillar at an international level.
For example, it is necessary to have supervision of the enactment of multilateral agreements. One of the issues which becomes increasingly urgent in this sector is the scarcity of water, the fundamental element for human existence. It is a serious problem if we consider that if we proceed with the model of development used at present, around half of the world’s population will suffer from lack of water in the next 25 years. These preoccupations emerged in all their seriousness during the Third World Forum on water held in Kyoto (16-23 March, 2002).
In all of this context can clearly be seen that the real nutshell of the question is tied to the formation of parameters for economic efficiency which the countries of the world give to their own economies; parameters which are still tied to a capitalistic system (which I would like to term first generation) which, up until today, has included in economic equations partial economic valuations without taking into account the economic valuation of the well-being of nature.
The well-being of nature needs to be considered in the same way as the patrimonial inheritance which any person receives. Without an inventory and accounts of the assets, nobody can know how much they will receive in inheritance.
The “first generation” capitalist system still behaves in this way, not giving any value (even monetary value if we wish, even if this is rather arid) to man and the ecosystem.
The ethical principle of sustainable development must include in its equation all those parts which, perhaps unknowingly, we have neglected until today. Just as today’s system considers an economy that gives material richness to man as efficient, neglecting the most important part: a person’s dignity.