All in the mind



All in the mind



TORE J. BREVIK

says that only changes in attitude will achieve a sustainable future and describes UNEP's work to bring them about





little boy 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 governance.

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 interest groups.

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 expect.

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 effective decision-making.



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 spotlights.

little boyThese 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 environmental problems.

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.



Worldwide mobilization

elderly womanNowhere 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 family.

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 it.

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.


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