"UNEP - Looking Forward" Editorial

Our Planet 10.2 - UNEP - Looking Forward


KLAUS Toepfer

United Nations Under-Secretary General
and Executive Director, UNEP


At the dawn of the new millennium, 'globalization' is the dominant tendency. Technology and enhanced communication systems are dissolving geographical distance and political boundaries.

Globalization's positive aspects are numerous, including enhanced access to goods and services propelled by the world economy and cultural change, both of which appear to bring progress and new opportunities to the peoples on Earth.

But its trade-offs, such as the impacts of the predominant development model on the global environment, are less well understood and should be a major concern for us all. This model has led to the dismantling of local economies and communities, the decline of traditional family farms and the destruction of renewable resources. As a result, climate change, loss of biological diversity, depletion of the ozone layer, pollution, exhaustion of water resources and conflicts over shared resources are some of our most pressing problems.

Effectively, the life-support systems on which our economies depend are being overloaded, and unless we move towards sustainable development, we could face severe and irreversible environmental damage.

Apart from profound ethical and aesthetic implications, the loss of biological diversity has serious economic and social costs. Genes, species, ecosystems and human knowledge represent a living library of options available for preventing and/or adapting to local and global change. Biological diversity sustains our daily lives and provides the resources on which we and future generations will depend.

Biological diversity must be appreciated in terms of human diversity, because different cultures understand it in different ways. Both diversities are fundamental to stability and durable peace on Earth. But creating forms of development that are sustainable because they are in harmony with the needs and aspirations of different cultures implies breaking current development patterns which render the lives and perspectives of some of the world's peoples invisible.

In recent times, the separation of spirit from matter has become a prevailing philosophical approach. A re-evaluation of this precept is being shaped by the major religions of the world in response to the global environmental crisis. This may have profound repercussions on the way both individuals and their societies perceive the environment, leading to more responsible actions.

While placing monetary value on species and ecosystems is a useful exercise in integrating the cost of using and conserving biological diversity in the current global economic system, it will never be possible to comprehend its true value in such a system.

The very origins of conservation lie buried in ancient cultures found throughout the world. Modern environmental movements express various ideologies of these belief systems, yet do not always acknowledge the debt to their forebears, nor to those who still embody these ideals. Learning and respecting the ways of today's indigenous and traditional peoples - most of whom inhabit areas of exceptional biological diversity - and integrating them into environmental and development considerations is indispensable for the survival of diversity. But this requires that the contributions of indigenous and traditional peoples be made visible.

Recent economic and financial shocks in the global economy have increased the risk of short-term financial crises resulting in the rolling back of gains made in national environmental policies and environmental cooperation at the regional and global level. But we must ensure that the financial set-backs do not result in the long-term reversal of environmental policies. Let us not forget that the protection of fragile ecosystems, species and natural resources are as important as safeguarding economic growth. We must keep in mind that medium and long-term economic growth and stability as well as poverty eradication depend on the stability and diversity of the natural environment. And we must, as a matter of necessity, integrate environmental considerations into both the macroeconomic framework as a response to the financial crisis and the reconstruction plans following natural disasters.

If World Environment Day, to be celebrated this year in Tokyo, Japan, has one important message, it is that we must resolve to weave the life-sustaining customs of all the Earth's people into a resilient fabric that will save and protect the sanctity of all life.

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