All in the mind
TORE J. BREVIK
says that only changes in attitude will achieve a
future and describes UNEP's work to bring them about
There is a story about an intelligent young man who had the bright idea
that people only drowned in water because they were influenced by the idea
of gravity. He reasoned that if only they were to remove this notion from
their heads by stating that it was merely a superstition or a figment of
their imagination, they would not only prove the theory of gravity wrong,
but would also protect themselves from any danger.
We are not told whether he survived the practical application of his
theory or whether he knew how to swim. But the story shows that the way we
think, the things we believe to be possible, and the things we think are
good and right, all determine what we do, and try to do. Similarly, our
relationship with the environment in which we exist is shaped by our
perspectives, assumptions, ingrained and habitual attitudes, and these in
turn are shaped by our heritage and by the cultural values we have imbibed.
Clearly, education and public awareness are absolutely fundamental to
achieving a sustainable future. The global community is now facing the
need to make changes that touch the very core of our value systems,
involving shifts in attitudes and perspectives, in the ways we view
ourselves in relation to the environment and utilize and allocate
resources, and in the structures and processes of our systems of
None of these changes will be accomplished unless the entire undertaking
is approached as a learning enterprise. The central task in this
enterprise is to assist decision makers and ordinary citizens to cultivate
a new mindset - with the goal of incorporating the imperatives of
sustainable development into all decision-making processes.
Since its establishment, UNEP has closely embraced this mandate of
enhancing environmental awareness. Along with this has come the
realization that if we are to ensure a sustainable future, stewardship and
the promotion of sustainability must become obligations and guiding
principles for the community, the private sector and governments.
Effective governance must capitalize fully on the abundant human resources
available in these groupings, which cover a wide range, from religious
organizations to parliamentarians, environmental groups to community
The question that we must ask is: to which of our modern values can we
attribute the gross destruction of our environmental resource base?
Forests replaced by farmlands, cities, industrial areas, or open-cast
mines; wetlands drained; rivers channelled and dammed; erosion of the soil
cover; silting of water courses; desertification; pollution of air, soil,
seas and freshwater resources; and the extinction of species.
The answer is clear: to our obsession with gross national product as a
measure of efficiency and affluence, to our passion for technology as a
panacea for all our ills.
Our predicament raises many deep issues about our attitudes to life and to
its purposes. It is clear that we will need to consider the role of
technology, the role of religion and values in the world of reality, if we
are to formulate a perspective which will guide our actions. Only then can
we think more clearly about the quality of life that our children can
UNEP plans and implements a comprehensive information and public relations
strategy in support of its programmes and regional priorities. The aim is
to foster positive patterns of conduct in the way people use resources.
Clearly, if people are the most valuable resource in development, they
need to be more aware of the effect of the environment on their well-being
and of the impact of their lifestyles on the environment.
People need usable information that enables them to engage each other as
citizens and take remedial action. Reliable flows of objective and
meaningful information are critical to the mobilization of an
environmentally aware and educated public and to the stimulation of
Force for change
Unfortunately, the media has been slow in identifying and covering the
citizen's movements that have proliferated in recent times around the
world. Environmental groups' issues range from the protection of orchids
to the protection of whales, from the actual destruction of wetlands to
the dangers of global warming, from the effects of affluence to those of
poverty. They range from multimillion member organizations operating out
of London, Washington or Geneva to Himalayan village associations fighting
to save their very livelihood. Whatever the philosophies and methods of
the various parts, the ultimate aim of the whole movement is to maintain
the quality of the human environment. The more dynamic parts of this
movement have been working silently away from the glare of the media
These grassroots movements have been the
drawing force for institutional change in important areas of our daily
life. UNEP endeavours to publicize the activities of these groups and
individuals. It also has the mandate to disseminate the findings of
science and technology in simple, easy to understand language, and plays a
leading role in enhancing awareness and a better understanding of
In my opinion, the overriding challenge that we in UNEP now face is of
communicating the challenge of long-term thinking, of connectedness, of
empowerment and of paradigm change to the global audience. The challenge
is not only to highlight the seriousness and far-reaching impact of global
environmental problems, but to show how the same problems afflict all
nations. It also lies not just in making these problems better understood
but in generating the political will to seek viable solutions. The task is
to tackle the prevailing wisdom and institutions of our contemporary
industrial and urban world.
Nowhere are UNEP's endeavours to
mobilize the creative energies of individuals, non-governmental
organizations and environmental groups better illustrated than in the
festivities centred around World Environment Day, which is celebrated on 5
June each year. The event is geared to enhancing global environmental
awareness and to capturing the attention of the international community on
pressing environmental issues.
The Global 500 Roll of Honour, which is presented on this occasion, is an
attempt to encourage individual and community action in defence of the
environment. The award is a tribute to success at the front line of global
environmental action as well as at the grassroots level.
UNEP, together with an Australian non-governmental organization,
spearheads a global movement to remove rubbish from cities, rural and
coastal areas. The campaign, known as the Clean Up the World Campaign, has
inspired millions of people in more than 100 countries to join in cleaning
up their neighbourhoods.
UNEP has a very active and dynamic programme to encourage the
participation of youth and children in environmental activities. Regular
Global and Regional Youth Fora are a testimony to the high priority that
we are giving to their role in the quest for sustainable development.
UNEP also strives at expertise in persuasive communication. Only stories
that are salient and pertinent to people's daily lives have any chance of
getting regular and reliable coverage. UNEP's flagship magazine, Our
Planet, endeavours to bridge the gap between the highly specialized
articles published in academic journals and more general articles. While
featuring success stories, it is also themed to tie in with major
international conferences and events of environmental concern.
One of UNEP's great success stories has been its link with the Television
Trust for the Environment (TVE) as a bridge between environment and
development, communities and broadcasters. The Trust has backed close to
200 documentaries, news and current affairs features. They have won over
120 awards, including, at times, the most prestigious. It is probably true
to say that over the past year there has not been a single hour in a
single day when a programme supported by TVE was not being shown somewhere
around the world.
Another remarkable initiative has been UNEP'S organization of two
International Photographic Competitions on the Environment entitled Focus
on Your World. With its unprecedentedly large number of entries and their
subsequent exhibition around the world, this event has become a truly
international event with the participation of the entire United Nations
We also intend to reach people through our environmental citizenship
programme, which aims to improve general environmental literacy as a means
of unleashing the energy and creativity of people in their communities all
around the world. Its cornerstone is partnerships with international,
regional, national and community-based organizations. In line with this,
UNEP has prepared an illustrated manual entitled Taking Action: A Guide
For You and Your Community as a stimulus for action. It has been
designed essentially as a guide to enable ordinary citizens and
communities to overcome obstacles to environmental protection by providing
basic facts about the environment, demonstrating how these problems are
interrelated, proposing alternative solutions based on the best
information available and suggesting how individuals and groups can
participate in achieving sustainable solutions.
The issue of disseminating information on environmental problems looms
large and seems to dwarf the resources available to address it
effectively. Social and economic issues compete for attention and scarce
funds. Given the limited resources, UNEP - and, for that matter, other
agencies - can no longer afford to deal with these issues by itself.
Partnerships are the only answer.
UNEP's partnership with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) -
through which we endeavour to transmit environmental values through the
medium of sport - and with British Airways - to encourage children's
participation in environmental activities - are outstanding examples and
have already yielded tangible results. The IOC has adopted environment as
the third pillar of its charter. And, with the help of British Airways, a
path-breaking International Children's Conference on the Environment was
held in Eastbourne, United Kingdom last year.
Information is not only about innovative technologies and gaining access
to the World Wide Web, which very few people in the developing world can
yet achieve. We also need to use established channels for disseminating
information to those who have no access to the Internet and cannot pay for
Let us not forget that the ultimate power to bring change rests with the
people. It is not the power of weapons or economic strength which will
determine the shape of the world. That will be determined in the minds and
the hearts of thinking men and women around the world.
This is, and continues to be, our commitment in UNEP.
Tore J. Brevik is Chief of Information and Public Affairs, UNEP.