Like a novel with two possible endings, ours is a story yet to be written in this new century. There is nothing inevitable about the spreador the collapseof prosperity. More than we know (or perhaps care to admit), the future is a matter of human choice, not mere prediction.
Despite the ongoing economic crisis in Europe and the US, the developing world has sustained rapid economic growth. While the International Monetary Fund forecasts that the advanced economies will grow by just 1.5% in 2013, developing-country growth is projected to reach 5.6%. Asias developing economies, now the worlds pacesetters, are expected to grow by 7.2%, with output in Sub-Saharan Africa set to rise by a healthy 5.7%.
What is happening is both powerful and clear. Technologies that were once found only in rich countries now belong to the entire world. Mobile phone coverage in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, has gone from nearly zero subscribers 20 years ago to around 700 million today. And those phones are helping to bring banking, health care, education, business, government services, and entertainment to the poor. Within a few years, the vast majority of the world will have access to wireless broadband.
Yet there is another truth as well. Last year was the hottest ever recorded in the US. Droughts afflicted around 60% of US counties, including the breadbasket states of the Midwest and the Great Plains. In October, an extraordinary superstorm smashed into the Atlantic coastline around New Jersey, causing losses of around $60 billion. Climate problemsfloods, droughts, heat waves, extreme storms, massive forest fires, and morealso ravaged many other parts of the world in 2012, including China, Australia, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, and Africas Sahel region.
These environmental disasters are occurring with rising frequency, as they are partly caused by human actions, such as deforestation, coastal erosion, massive pollution, and, of course, the greenhouse-gas emissions that are changing the worlds climate and acidifying the oceans. What is new is that scourges like climate changeuntil recently described as a future threatare now clear and present dangers. Scientists have even given a name to our era, the Anthropocene, in which humanity (anthropos in Greek) is having a large-scale impact on the planets ecosystems.
Herein lies our great challengethe one that will determine whether we follow the path of prosperity or ruin. The rapidly growing developing countries cannot simply follow the economic-growth path that todays rich countries traveled. If they try, the world economy will push the planet beyond safe operating conditions. Temperatures will rise, storms will intensify, the oceans will become more acidic, and species will go extinct in vast numbers as their habitats are destroyed.
The simple fact is that humanity faces a stark choice. If the world economys current growth patterns continue, we face ecological disaster. If the world economy embraces a new growth patternone that harnesses advanced technologies like smart phones, broadband, precision agriculture and solar powerwe can spread prosperity while saving the planet.
I call todays growth pattern the business-as-usual option; the smart-technology growth pattern, by contrast, represents the sustainable-development option. Business as usual can work for a while, but it will end in tears, while the sustainable-development path can lead to long-term prosperity.
So, what will it take to write the happy ending First, we must recognise that we, as a global society, have a choice to make. Business as usual is comfortable. We think we understand it. Yet it is not good enough: on our current trajectory, short-term prosperity is coming at the cost of too many future crises.
Second, we must recognise the powerful new tools and technologies that we have at hand. Using advanced information technologiescomputers, satellite mapping, image processing, expert systems, and morewe now have the means to grow more food with less environmental damage; improve public health for rich and poor alike; distribute more electricity with lower greenhouse-gas emissions; and make our cities more livable and healthier, even as urbanisation raises their populations by billions in the coming decades.
Third, we should set bold goals for the years aheadto spread prosperity and improve public health while saving the planet. Fifty years ago, US President John F Kennedy said that we should to go to the moon not because it was easy, but because it was hardit tested the best in us. In our generation, sustainable development will be our test, encouraging us to use our creativity and human values to establish a path of sustainable well-being on our crowded and endangered planet.
I am proud and honoured that United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has asked me to help mobilise the worlds expertise as we seek to achieve that goal. The greatest talents in our societiesin universities, businesses, NGOs, and especially among the worlds young peopleare ready to take on our greatest challenges, and are joining the UNs new Sustainable Development Solutions Network. In the months and years ahead, these leaders will share their visions of a prosperous and sustainable global society.
The author is professor of sustainable development, professor of health policy and management, and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013