Cry The Beloved Planet


The Earth As We Know It Has Less Than 30 Years To Survive If We Continue Our Destructive Course

by Maurice Strong

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 motivation.

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.

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 published this month by Knopf.

 

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 societies.

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
destruction.

8. Adopt patterns of consumption, production and reproduction that respect
and safeguard Earth's regenerative capacities, human rights and community
well-being.

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
imperative.

11. Honour and defend the right of all persons, without discrimination, to an
environment supportive of their dignity, bodily health and spiritual
well-being.

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
governance.

14. Affirm and promote gender equality as a prerequisite to sustainable
development.

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?

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Published on Monday, May 22, 2000 in the Toronto Globe & Mail