The Earth as we know it has less than 30 years to survive if we
continue our destructive course
By Maurice Strong The Globe and Mail, Toronto, Monday, May 22, 2000
[Maurice Strong is a former senior adviser to UN Secretary-General Kofi
Annan and to the president of the World Bank. His book, Where on Earth are
We Going?, was publishedin May 2000 by Knopf.]
Where on Earth are We Going? is not merely the title of my book but the
fundamental question that confronts the human community as we begin this
new millennium. The short answer to this is that it is up to us. For human
numbers, and the scale and intensity of human activities, have reached the
point at which we are impinging on the environmental and life-support
systems on which life on Earth as we know it depends. We are literally the
principal architects of our own future.
What we do, or fail to do, will determine the fate of the Earth as a
hospitable home for the human species. Other forms of life will, of
course, be affected and, indeed, many species are already becoming extinct
at unprecedented rates. But humans are now the dominant species -- and in
many ways the most vulnerable to the risks that have been created by the
very same processes that have produced wealth and prosperity beyond the
dreams of past generations. What a paradox it is that is our success as a
species threatens our future!
In the course of human experience, there are many instances in which great
civilizations became victims of mismanagement of their own environment and
natural resources. Tragic as these events were for those involved, life
went on and new civilizations emerged, culminating in the technological
civilization in which we now live. The difference is that this
civilization is global in scale and our failure to manage it effectively
and responsibly will have consequences for all of humanity.
Dire predictions are never popular, but they are not always wrong. When
your doctor gives you an unwelcome diagnosis that your life is at risk,
you are surely unwise to ignore it. The preponderance of scientific
opinion, as most recently displayed in a report of the National Academy of
Sciences of the United States, provides us with an informed and
well-documented diagnosis of the dangers facing Earth, and the risks that
these pose to human life and well-being.
Political leaders, businessmen and individuals make decisions every day
based on the best evidence available at the time. Surely then, it would be
folly to wait for the certainty that only a postmortem could provide. And
this is especially true when most of the measures we need to take to avert
these risks and ensure a more sustainable and secure future would be good
for us in any event -- economically as well as environmentally.
In my book, I present a fictional scenario for the end of the year 2030,
which postulates a world that has degenerated into chaos, conflict and
societal breakdown of a colossal scale. This is not a prediction. It is
simply an attempt to portray the kind of world that would result from our
continuing a "business-as-usual" attitude toward the actions and policies
through which we are shaping our future.
It envisages a world in which extremes of weather and natural disasters
have taken more lives and caused more damage than both World Wars of the
20th century. The structures of government and law and order have broken
down. People are fending for themselves and those on whom they once relied
for security are now controlling and exploiting them. Services and
infrastructures are dysfunctional and disease is rampant. Food, water and
essential materials are in short supply and conflicts over them are
intense and violent. Population has declined precipitously with the spread
of disease, starvation and conflict. Troubled people are on the move in
vast numbers, resorting to every possible means of entering America,
Europe and other countries thought to offer refuge. There has been a
resurgence of religious extremism and religious conflict. People have
turned away from the reasoned voice of science. At the political level,
the nation state system has broken down and many have broken up. The
United Nations has not been able to meet as no agreement could be reached
on what new self-declared nations should be recognized as members.
It may be fiction, but it is not far-fetched. I am convinced that it is
the kind of world that we will have in, or around, the year 2030 if we
continue on our present course.
And it need not be. We now have the knowledge, the understanding and the
tools with which to make the kind of "change of course" called for by
business leaders at the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in June, 1992.
Unfortunately, despite the progress made on many fronts since the Earth
Summit, we are still on a pathway to the kind of world that makes such
doomsday scenarios real possibilities.
What must we do?
The answer is to change -- to change our policies, priorities, behaviour,
and the values that motivate us. The first thing to do is change the
system of incentives and penalties by which governments motivate the
economic behaviour of corporations and individuals to encourage practices
that are more environmentally and socially friendly. A recent study by the
Earth Council estimates that in four sectors alone -- water, energy,
transport and agriculture -- more than $700-billion dollars a year is
spent on subsidizing practices that are environmentally and socially
damaging and economically costly. Whatever good purpose such subsidies
were originally intended to serve, they have become entrenched in the
system long after they were needed.
If we make such a change, market forces would become an ally and business
would be motivated to concentrate on products and services that are
environmentally sound and socially beneficial.
In the days since our first blush of environmental concern, we have lost
our innocence. We now know a great deal about the damage we are doing and
how to remedy it. Technology has given us an impressive array of new tools
with which to pursue sound and sustainable production and consumption
patterns. Of course, there is much more we can always learn. But, over
all, implementation is no longer a problem. The problem is one of
Opinion surveys today indicate that the public does not give highest
priority to the environment, even though they show a strong and continuing
commitment from the majority of people to the need to protect and improve
the environment. In more industrialized countries, people have become
preoccupied more and more with their own self-interest. The environmental
stress is on global environment as a result of climatic change,
accelerating destruction of biological resources and damage to the Earth's
other vital life-support systems. Meanwhile, developing countries are
experiencing to a greater extent the same kind of air and water pollution
and deterioration of natural resources that first made the environment an
issue in the more mature, industrialized countries.
Despite preoccupations with their immediate self-interest, people
everywhere are motivated at the deepest level by their moral, ethical and
spiritual values. And as we now know, that responsibility for the future
of life on Earth rests with us. This has become the greatest challenge to
our value systems. No nation of people can go it alone in ensuring a
sustainable and promising future. It requires unprecedented levels of
co-operation. And to provide the foundations for this co-operation, we
must develop a set of moral and ethical principles and spiritual values
that people of all religions, philosophical, ideological and political
persuasions and ethnic origins can embrace.
It is with this realization that I proposed to world leaders gathered at
Rio that they adopt an Earth Charter -- a Magna Carta for the Earth --
articulating a basic set of moral and ethical principles and spiritual
values to guide the conduct of nations of people toward the Earth and each
other. Governments were not ready for it, and it was one of my greatest
disappointments that they did not agree to it at Rio.
Following Rio, I joined with Mikhail Gorbachev and other leaders from
around the world to develop a people's "Earth Charter," incorporating the
contributions of thousands of people. It will be launched formally at a
ceremony at the Peace Place in The Hague, Netherlands, next month and
people everywhere will be invited to use it as a basis for examining their
own moral, ethical and spiritual values, and inculcating them in the
behaviour in their communities, institutions and businesses.
Plans call for presentation of the Earth Charter to the United Nations at
a special session of the General Assembly to be held in 2002 on the 10th
anniversary of the Earth Summit, and the 30th anniversary of the Stockholm
Conference, which first put these issues on the world agenda. For
implementation will surely follow motivation. Thus it is that I am
concentrating my time and energies at this time of my life on trying to
improve the motivation that I am convinced is the key to the more secure,
sustainable and promising future that I still believe is achievable.
PRINCIPLES OF AN EARTH CHARTER
1. Respect Earth and all life.
2. Care for the community of life in all its diversity.
3. Strive to build free, just, participatory, sustainable and peaceful
4. Secure Earth's abundance and beauty for present and future generations.
5. Protect and restore the integrity of Earth's ecological systems, with
special concern for biological diversity and the natural processes that
sustain and renew life.
6. Prevent harm to the environment as the best method of ecological
protection, and when knowledge is limited, take the path of caution.
7. Treat all living beings with compassion, and protect them from wanton
8. Adopt patterns of consumption, production and reproduction that respect
and safeguard Earth's regenerative capacities, human rights and
9. Ensure that economic activities support and promote human development
in an equitable and sustainable manner.
10. Eradicate poverty, as an ethical, social, economic and ecological
11. Honour and defend the right of all persons, without discrimination, to
an environment supportive of their dignity, bodily health and
12. Advance worldwide the co-operative study of ecological systems, the
dissemination and application of knowledge and the development,
adoption and transfer of clean technologies.
13. Establish access to information, inclusive participation in
decision-making, and transparency, truthfulness and accountability in
14. Affirm and promote gender equality as a prerequisite to sustainable
15. Make the knowledge, values and skills needed to build just and
sustainable communities an integral part of formal education and
lifelong learning for all.
16. Create a culture of peace and co-operation.
-- Where on Earth are We Going?
Copyright 2000 | The Globe and Mail
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