Our Common Future

Today, we were having a recycling call at the school of my sons. I am parent representative of the class of my oldest boy, and his generation was in charge of assisting the parent association (PA) with their work. The PA does those calls to generate funds for their activities – they sell the material to a recycling company. We have had two events where we asked families to bring paper and aluminum cans. This time, we collected electronic trash – computers, cell phone, TVs, stereos, all the things that do not work or that people do not need anymore. And I was first impressed and then shocked by the amount we received.

Impressed because I saw quite some mums and dads that had taken the time and effort to check out their basements and attics to get all their tech junk together and bring it to school from 7am in the morning.

Shocked because I opened several plastic bags that had four, five cell phones in them; or three digital cameras in one lot. One dad brought four laptops that caught the eye of several of the security guys helping us because they looked still quite neat. We piled up hundreds of chargers, cables, modems; dozens of DVD players. I was just wondering how people can have so much stuff; how they can buy so many things. Mexico is still a developing country, but the families of the so-called middle class for sure spend lots of money on consumer electronics.

I was thinking about Gro Harlem Brundtland and the definition of sustainability that she and other environmental thinkers formulated more than 25 years ago: Sustainable development is the kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The “needs” mentioned in the Brundtland report, aka “Our Common Future”, referred to the “essential needs of the world’s poorest people”. At least 50 percent of the goods we collected this morning, I would say, were not fulfilling that criteria.

I don’t want to propagate quasi stone age life – that we all just have a roof over our heads, enough to eat, clothes to cover our bodies, and health care and education. I have a smart phone, I use a computer, I like to watch TV. I know that there is technological progress – we saw things there this morning that gave us the sense that we were using a time machine: huge computer monitors, bulky CPUs, fax machines, a TV more than half a meter deep, VHS players.

But does it always have to be the latest iPhone? My youngest son knows when the newest version of Steve Jobs’ favorite telecom device is launched. He would love to have one. A lighter laptop? A smaller dock-in station? An even bigger flat-screen? A more powerful car? We all have to ask ourselves if we are not compromising the ability of our children and grand-children to meet their own needs by consuming the way we do.

Recycling is good – a lot of the bits and pieces of the goods that we collected this morning will find their way into new cool gadgets. Production nowadays is much more resource efficient than it was in 1987 when Brundtland was asked by the then UN Secretary-General to lay the intellectual groundwork for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro five years later. But nearly all experts agree that there will be no sustainability without us really rethinking and changing our consumption habits. It is a truth the business community usually does not like to hear, but some companies have shown that it also can be an opportunity.



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