The Town of the XXI Century
Series of reports on ecological situation in Central Asia

Kazakhstan: dimensions of sustainable development

For a long time developed countries have been thinking of the days to come, and, specifically, about their distant future. They strengthen economic aspects of their statehood and accumulate resources, try to identify moral and ethical values which will define social behavior of the future, ensure legal protection of their positions in the international community through lobbying for certain internationally recognized norms and rights. In other words, developed nations are getting ready to live in the new civilization and to preserve their supremacy in the framework of the new international order.

In developing countries, including Kazakhstan, the situation is vastly different. Unfortunately, trying to picture our future we do not look too far. Behaviors typical for our elite and mentality of the common people testify to this historical shortsightedness. To us the notion of tomorrow is limited by the very near future covering current generation’s life span and sometimes extending into the lives of our children and grandchildren. What shall we leave as the legacy for posterity? What foundation shall we build to secure a sound position in the new civilization? Only a handful of people today are concerned with these issues. The vast majority prefers to live today’s lives.

For example, we do not have the means to manage our vast natural resources effectively and have to invite foreign investors allowing them too manage our riches. Of course, investors willingly embrace this opportunity because working on our market and earning profits they preserve resources of their home countries for future generations. They also have an opportunity to stockpile resources readily available today foreseeing possible deficits of the future.

At the same time, trying to secure commanding heights in tomorrow’s world order developed countries operate under the pretence of democratic principles and overall state of complete harmony. This is the route developed countries take to maximize their efforts in preparing for the inevitable ecological crisis. To the contrary, developing countries currently have to battle systemic crisis entailing demographic, social and cultural problems, while ecological issues tend to be removed far from the top of the priority lists.

Unfortunately, in this race for the bright future a lot of countries will be disqualified in mid-race as the handcuffs of economic, political and moral challenges will limit their ability to stay the course and catch up with the leaders. These countries have no way of following UN events and initiatives. They have nothing to do with the fate of humanity and global ecological issues. Scientists predict that developing nations will follow the fate of Arctic peoples counting their last decades and generations. Experts believe that relations between the old and new civilizations will develop painfully and, more exactly, will lead to conflicts. Even now the world is torn apart by dozens of conflicts. Developed countries protect their economic and religious interests, developing countries fight for their own ones.

The newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, also, face a difficult situation. Unfortunately, in the former Soviet Union general population never pursued global knowledge while country leaders had no notion of geopolitical thinking. Everyone took care of today’s interests. Consequently, political situation has been and still is characterized by a high degree of instability.
Experts believe that Kazakhstan had a chance to build a rapidly developing economic system. Moreover, the country could choose from one of the two historically proven alternative ways of development. The first option was to strive for a European-style civil society. The second one – to create an Asian-style corporate state, building on Japanese and South Korean experiences. However, Kazakhstan embarked on a certain third route. Consequently, nowadays some people live in the atmosphere of an Asian corporate state, while the vast majority supposedly works to build a democratic nation. The situation negatively impacts the country’s economy and demography, while deteriorating public education system can forever bar Kazakhstan from access to lucrative world markets.

To ensure implementation of key sustainable development principles the UN recommends all government and non-government organizations to facilitate on-going educational programs for children and adults. The reasoning behind on-going education is quite simple: every six years knowledge acquired at a higher educational institution becomes obsolete. Consequently, developed nations currently compete in sciences, education, technologies. In Kazakhstan budget expenditures for education constantly fall year-on-year and are currently less than 3% GDP. Funding for scientific research is in an even worse shape.

Within last several years international researchers coined out a new term – functional illiteracy of the population. What does that mean? Functional illiteracy describes a situation in which acquired knowledge can not be applied. Acquired knowledge is obsolete, does not account for economic realities of the region or is useless because of various combinations of circumstances. In Kazakhstan functional illiteracy is an extremely acute issue. Supposedly, children go to school. Supposedly, all high schools have been “computerized”. Supposedly, in relative terms we have more higher educational institutions and more university graduates than even the most advanced industrialized nations, however, for some reason or another years of studies do not allow young people to develop into qualified professionals.

Researchers estimate that to resolve current issues Kazakhstan has approximately 10 years, two decades as the maximum. That is the amount of time allocated to ensure reasonable management of our resources based on outdated extraction and processing technologies. However, within the next decade or two we have to ensure profound upgrade of our production technologies and increase intellectual level of the population.

At the same time experts admit that even now Kazakhstan attempts to catch up with the most advanced countries in addressing key issues which will become even more urgent as time goes by. Primarily, the urgency is related to the idea of sustainable development with its core postulate of the need to search for universal harmony inside the international community and in relations between human beings and the environment.

Currently only one fifth of the humanity lives in what can be defined as “humane conditions”. In other words, these people can maintain adequate diets, live in comfortable conditions and afford various extras offered by the civilization. Understandably, the vast majority of these people live in developed countries. However, these standards of living are extremely harmful for the environment because they have negative impacts on the ecology and require enormous amounts of energy. If all human beings on the planet were able to maintain similar standards of living the planet would not sustain the pressure on its ecological system. Even now commercial fishing capacity greatly exceeds acceptable levels, excessive cattle herds destroy pastures, tropical forests are at the brink of extinction. Within last 160 years concentration of carbon dioxide has greatly increased in the planet’s atmosphere as a result of emissions from millions of automobiles and industrial enterprises. Ozone layer has been depleted and for the last 20 years scientists have been sending out alerts regarding global warming caused by greenhouse gases emissions.

If in the XXI century all countries try to achieve “western standards of living” and our planet’s population continues to grow at today’s rate, the consequences will be quite grim. The UN experts estimate that by 2050 the planet’s population will reach 10 billion, while the number of motor vehicles will jump to 5 billion as compared to today’s 500 million. However, even now more than 1 billion people worldwide have to inhale harmful air while 3 million people die annually as a direct consequence of atmospheric pollution. The same estimates indicate that by 2050 we shall consume 360 million barrels of oil – five times more than contemporary annual consumption of 67 million barrels. Based on today’s bread consumption requirements it will take 9 billion tones of grain to feed 10 billion people. This is four times more than contemporary potential crop yields. It is hard to imagine cumulative impacts of all these changes on the ecological system. Most likely, it will be impossible to breathe, water will be polluted beyond all imaginable limits and the humanity will have to battle continuous severe water deficits. However, chances are that humanity will not be able to survive at all.

Consequently, economic systems and our demands can not grow infinitely. Economies should be fully guided by ecology and sustainable development principles. In practical terms, commercial fishing should not impact regeneration of fish populations. Lumber production should not prevent regeneration of forests. Carbon-based substances emissions should not exceed the nature’s ability o neutralize emissions. There are multitudes of similar examples.

For the first time in history sustainable development issues were addressed 30 years ago. At that time representatives of the vast majority of the planet’s governments gathered in Stockholm to attend the first UN environmental conference. As a result of the conference, national governments started to create environmental protection ministries and the “green” movement was born. Stockholm Conference allowed to include environmental protection into the list of the world’s most urgent issues.

Later on 1992 Rio-de-Janeiro Conference resulted in organization of the Earth Summit which served as the forum for discussion of sustainable development issues and development of the action plans. That is when people started to hope that environmental issues will take an important place alongside economic and social issues. At the Earth Summit the international community adopted The XXI Century Agenda – the blueprint for long-term sustainable development of the world economy.

It seemed that the world finally came to the realization that positive results would require unified global efforts. It was also recognized that wealthy countries would not be able to resolve global issues, such as climate change, unless poor countries stopped getting poorer. Hence, one of the primary objectives defined at the Summit – it is necessary to help the poor ones.

United Nations Development Program (UNDP) estimates that 800 million people suffer from starvation, more than one billion people do not have access to clean drinking water, 1.6 billion are illiterate and 2 billion do not have access to electricity. Poverty leads to high child mortality rates, low life expectancy and rapid spread of many infectious diseases.
There is a huge gap between the wealthy and the poor. 225 people on the planet have amassed a cumulative fortune of one trillion USD, which can be sufficient to ensure normal lives for half of the world’s poor. The world’s three most wealthy people have a cumulative fortune equal to the capital of the world’s 48 poorest nations. If wealthy countries continue to amass riches poor nations will never be able to emerge from poverty. Hence, a decision was made that wealthy nations would give 0.7% of their GDP to the poorest countries. However, the decision was never implemented. No one was eager to help the poor. Moreover, within last several years amounts of assistance from developed nations have been decreasing.

Some observers hoped that 2002 Sustainable Development Summit in Johannesburg would devote special attention to poverty-related issues and would come up with effective counter actions. Some very interesting figures were announced at the Summit and later published by Forbes magazine. For example, 20% of the world’s poorest people consume only 1% of civilization’s benefits while 90 of the benefits get distributed to 20% of the people living in wealthy nations. In other words, one fifth of the planet’s population lives very well while the rest of the people merely survive.

What are some of the potential consequences of the current situation? Mr. Nursultan Nazarbaev, President of Kazakhstan addressed the issue at the Summit saying: "If achievements and benefits of globalization continue to be distributed among a small group of highly developed nations, then it will inevitably lead to confrontation, conflicts and social cataclysms of much greater severity than the ones experienced by our civilization within the last and preceding centuries".


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