Let us make peace with the Earth
Global environmental change makes necessary an unprecedented linkage with future generations; one in which sustainability and development are harmonised, writes Koïchiro Matsuura*
We know now that our civilisation, our species, and even our planet may not be immortal. This is not the first ecological crisis that humanity has lived through, to be sure; but there can be no doubt it is the first that is so wide -- indeed, worldwide -- in scope. What are we doing to safeguard the future of the Earth and its biosphere? What are the challenges to be met? What solutions can we offer? These were the questions under discussion in the latest session of our "21st Century Dialogues" organised by Jérôme Bindé at UNESCO headquarters on the theme: "What future for the human species? What prospects for the planet?" with contributions from some 15 leading experts.
First and foremost, climate change and global warming: by the end of the century this planet could be hotter by an amount between 1.5 and 5.8 degrees centigrade. Such a warming of the climate threatens many parts of the world, and is liable to provoke further disasters from the proliferation of tropical storms to the drowning of whole island states or coastal regions.
Next comes desertification, already affecting a third of the world's land. At the end of the 20th century almost one billion people in 110 countries faced the threat of encroaching deserts: the figure might well double by 2050, when two billion could be affected.
Deforestation is continuing, too, though primary and tropical forests are home to the greater part of the world's biodiversity, and we know they help to combat climate change as well as slowing soil erosion.
The whole biosphere is threatened by pollution: pollution of air and water, oceans and soils, chemical pollution and invisible pollution. In Asia alone, the World Bank estimates the cost in human life of atmospheric pollution at 1.56 million deaths a year.
There is a world water crisis that cannot be ignored. Two billion people will face water shortages in 2025 -- three billion, in all likelihood, by 2050.
Lastly, biodiversity is endangered: species are becoming extinct a hundred times faster than the mean natural rate, and 50 per cent of all species could be gone by 2100. Yet biodiversity is essential to the cycle of life, to human health, and to the security of our food supply.
This situation brings a serious risk of war and other conflicts, and demands a global response. Sustainable development concerns us all: it is a necessary condition for any effective fight against poverty, not least because it is the poorest who will suffer the worst of the droughts and other natural disasters to come.
Today, though, we understand that our war on nature is a world war. That is the meaning of the Stern Report on the economic consequences of climate change. If we do not take immediate action to combat global warming, we can expect to forgo between five per cent and 20 per cent of world GDP. Who says sustainable development costs too much? "Business as usual" is what threatens to ruin us! Javier Pérez de Cuéllar began our "21st Century Dialogues" with a clear warning: "How can we know, yet be unable -- or unwilling -- to act?"
There are difficult questions that we have to answer now, with courage and lucidity. It can no longer be argued that "sustainability" and "development" are conflicting goals, nor that tackling poverty is incompatible with conserving ecosystems. We are going to have to fight on every front at once.
We shall also have to invent new and far more wisely restrained modes of growth and consumption. As Haroldo Mattos de Lemos emphasised in the dialogues , "we humans are no longer living off nature's interest, but off its capital." The idea is not, of course, to stop growth entirely, but, as Mostafa Tolba suggested, to bring about the quickest possible shift in its nature towards less material forms of wealth, reducing our consumption of raw materials in every area of production. There must also be far greater awareness of the devastating potential of global warming; and that awareness must result in compliance with the measures laid down in the Kyoto Protocol.
It would also be useful to promote a right to clean drinking water, laying a proper foundation for the ethical governance of water so that it becomes possible both to control demand and to manage it better, as well as improving water quality through careful use, proper treatment and recycling.
UNESCO is actively engaged on many fronts in promoting sustainable water policies, fostering education in this area and encouraging the global protection of biodiversity not least through its worldwide network of "biosphere reserves". They have truly become experimental laboratories for ecosystem conservation and the rational use of natural resources at the local level.
I have also in mind UNESCO's many operations in the South to help with the training of experts and managers; for there is a cruel lack of trained professionals and educated policymakers properly aware of the links between water, poverty, health, culture and development. Cultural aspects and education are often neglected in environmental thinking and policy: yet education and culture are two essential factors in any sustainable development.
As part of the current reform of the United Nations system, a wide-ranging debate has now begun concerning the governance of the environment at a worldwide level and the need for better coordination of everybody's efforts. I, too, am convinced that our environmental activities within the United Nations system are too fragmented and often suffer as a result; this must be put right. In our efforts to improve coordination, however, we must be sure to build on the mechanisms that already exist and are working well.
UNESCO is actively engaged in this debate, where our role is dictated by our mandate: the E for Education, the S for Science and the C for Culture and Communication. Here I should recall that UNESCO conducts four major international scientific programmes on the environment -- one on oceans, one on water, one on man and the biosphere and one on geoscience -- in full cooperation with the United Nations and with the United Nations Environment Programme. The success of UN-Water (composed of 24 institutions and organisations belonging to the UN system, one of which is UNESCO) gives a good example of fruitful cooperation. UNESCO also acts as lead organisation for the World Water Assessment Programme, and for the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.
The call for us, today, to put an end to the war on nature is a call for an unprecedented solidarity with future generations. Perhaps, in order to achieve this, humanity needs to make a new pact, a "natural contract" of co-development with the planet, and an armistice with nature?
We need the wisdom to champion an ethic of the future, for such an ethic must prevail if we are to make peace with the Earth. This planet is our mirror image: if it is wounded, then we are wounded; if it is mutilated, humankind is mutilated as well. To change direction, we have to create knowledge societies that can combine tackling poverty with investing in education, research and innovation; in doing so, we lay the foundations of a true ethic of responsibility.
* The writer is director-general of UNESCO.