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RIO+20 The Future We Want

RIO+20 the future we want

David Abulafia: The Future We Want

David Abulafia

We have all learned some hard lessons in the last four years. We discovered that economic growth in the richest economies can falter. We discovered that many of our assumptions about the future will need to be qualified. For instance, so great has been the success in improving health care that people live longer and the money to pay their pensions is running out; as they stay longer in work, opportunities are denied to young people in search of a job. Increasingly sophisticated drugs can cure what used to be fatal diseases, but those drugs are often expensive, and it is the poorest who are most likely to need medical attention. China is a boom economy, and yet much of its population cannot share in the growing prosperity of the new middle class. And that is not to speak of the crisis in several African lands: famines, warfare, political disorder.

All this points to a future we do not want. But it also suggests where our priorities should lie in planning for a future. Excessively rapid growth generates major problems. This is particularly true of the environment, and the rising economies of China, India, Brazil and elsewhere have to act responsibly in the use of fossil fuels and in deforestation. Of course, they can point a finger at USA, which is such a massive consumer of cheap oil, and one would expect a response from there, too, and from Europe, despite its current problems. Only with the development of new fuel sources can the economy continue to grow without causing massive environmental degradation. Investment in this area has to be a very high priority, although one possibility, nuclear power, poses risks, as we have seen at Fukushima in Japan, not to mention the other risks that may result from irresponsible use of nuclear technology. Genetically-modified crops remain controversial but with appropriate safeguards they may help stave off famine.

Nowadays we read of all sorts of technical and medical innovations that could make life much easier for those able to benefit from them. The great dilemma is how to ensure that these innovations are accessible to all of humanity. The first stage is peace between nations and democratization within nations, and the role of the UN in promoting peace whenever possible must not be under-estimated. True economic recovery can only take place in a world at peace.

David Abulafia is Professor of Mediterranean History at Cambridge University and a fellow of the British Academy. He authored The Great Sea: a human history of the Mediterranean