Once upon a time, there was a tropical island where two families lived.
On the northern side lived a family of three in a 20-bedroom, centrally air-conditioned mansion 24/7, with an Olympic-size pool, 20 TV sets, 20 luxury and gas-guzzling cars, and food in their 10 refrigerators that could feed an entire village. Because their house was so huge, and because the parents were always working to keep up their lifestyle, they hardly saw each other.
On the southern side lived a family of six in a simple home with a thatched roof. They had a vegetable and fruit garden for their food, they swam in the sea, and their nights were lighted by the stars and the moon. They walked for their transportation, and used a bicycle to get to farther places. Because of the tropical climate, they wore light clothing. They worked a little just to feed themselves, but they had time for each other and had a lot of leisure time to play.
One day, an international development expert came and saw how differently the two families lived. The expert told the family in the south that they were poor and underdeveloped, and that they should follow the developed lifestyle of the family in the north.
Is that not what is happening to our world? We call countries that consume the most materials and the most energy as economically “developed,” while those who consume less are called “underdeveloped” or, to make it sound a little better, “developing.”
What is economics? It is defined as the efficient use of scarce resources. A developed economy is, by definition, one that is most efficient in its use of scarce resources. Yet the so-called developed countries are the most wasteful in terms of their consumption of energy, materials, and even of food.
An economy based on consumption and waste can, therefore, never be called a developed economy. In fact, that term as it is used is an oxymoron, a contradiction of terms. English-speaking people will tell you that the word “consumption” has two synonyms—one is “waste” and the other is “tuberculosis.” The analogy of tuberculosis is apropos. Tuberculosis is the disease caused by the bacteria called tubercle bacilli that consumes the body’s living tissues. Is that not very much like the bacteria of consumption that has been eating at the living tissues of life on Earth?
Yet, is this not the kind of development we seem to be all aspiring for? Studies have shown that if all of us 7 billion people on Earth lived the lifestyle of an average person in one of the so-called developed countries, we will need the resources of between five and nine Earths.
How many Earths do we have?
As it is, we are committing two fatal errors:
1. We are using a wrong model of development that will result in the annihilation of life on Earth. (No wonder many of these “developed” economies are now practically broke and are merely hanging on to the thin lifeline of debt.)
2. We are using wrong words to describe ourselves.
Why is this relevant to our proposal to reduce the consumption of HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons, many of which are potent greenhouse gases)? It is relevant for the simple reason that the low-consuming countries all want to produce and/or consume as much of these very hot gases to put in their cars and air-conditioning units, and thus copy the lifestyle of the overconsuming countries. All in the name of economic development.
In 2005, the United States was the highest consumer of HFCs, followed by China. The United States and the European Union alone consumed more than half of all the HFCs in the world. To be fair, they are now taking the lead in trying to phase down the use of these gases in their jurisdictions. But two countries that produce these gases have been reluctant to even engage in a discussion.
Last month in Rio de Janeiro, it was agreed to “support the gradual phase-down in the consumption and production of HFCs” (Section 222 of the Rio+20 Declaration). This was universally adopted by all the countries of the world. This is precisely what the Montreal Protocol does and has extensive experience in. Let it be remembered that HFCs were born because of the Montreal Protocol. For us to even think of passing the responsibility to others is not only irresponsible, it is downright immoral.
Facing the inevitable
Two things are clear:
1. The writing is all over the wall. HFCs will be phased down, sooner or later. The longer we wait, the higher will be the cost, not only financially but environmentally.
2. We, the parties of the Montreal Protocol, have a choice now. We can take control of our destiny and set the conditions for the HFC phase-down. Or we can stand by while others make the decisions, and face a patchwork of controls that will soon come out in trade restrictions.
Let me go back to my little story of the two families referred to as “developed” and “developing.” I respectfully request the parties to please avoid using these terms. First, because it makes the so-called developing countries feel inferior. If truth be told, many of us had peaceful civilizations and rich cultures when these so-called developed countries did not even exist, or were still killing each other in the name of conquest.
Second, and most important, because it uses the wrong model and mindset of development. If we continue in this trajectory of development based on consumption, we will consume all the living tissues of this beautiful planet we call Earth. From now on, let us call a spade a spade. Let us refer to them as “overconsuming countries” and us, “low-consuming countries.” We should not copy their consumption patterns. Rather, they should aspire to copy us. After all, we only have one Earth.
We can use the terms A5 and A2, North and South, dog and cat, sun and moon, or wind and fire. But please do not call us “developing” and “developed.”
From analysis, we now move to action. I respectfully serve notice that at any time I hear the words “developed” and “developing,” I will raise an objection. I also respectfully invite others to do so, not only in this forum but also in any other local and international forum, including the United Nations and the World Bank, where they continue to use these terms that are altogether wrong.
I respectfully apologize in advance to anyone who will use these terms. We do not wish to disrupt their train of thought. We only want to disrupt the thought processes and the very mindset that got us into the problems that we are in now. As a very wise man of the 20th century once said, we cannot solve a problem using the same mindset that created that problem in the first place.
When we change words, we change meanings; when we change meanings, we change mindsets.
Antonio Oposa Jr., lawyer, environmental activist, and recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2009, pioneered the practice of environmental law in the Philippines. He delivered this piece at the recent Montreal Protocol working group meeting in Bangkok, where he represented the Federated States of Micronesia.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.