It took two centuries of environmental degradation before worldwide concern brought world leaders to Stockholm in 1972 for the first ever summit dedicated to the environment. The meeting was a great boost to the still-young environment movement and saw the establishment of a new international agency - UNEP - to keep the environmental flame alive.
The web of international environmental treaties that have been negotiated over the past couple of decades owes a great deal to UNEP's role as advocate for greater environmental responsibility. Equally, UNEP has quietly promoted environmental management capacity in developing countries and pushed to include environmental considerations in social and economic policy.
The Earth Summit held in Rio in 1992 gave new impetus to this work by placing the environment at the centre of the development debate. The great legacies of that Summit - Agenda 21 and the Conventions on Climate Change and Biological Diversity - helped forge linkages between natural ecosystems, people, and the fight against poverty. The World Bank's work in this area draws heavily on the achievements of Rio.
Nevertheless the economic crises in East Asia and Latin America show the fragile nature of some of these gains as countries, faced by imminent financial collapse, ditch environmental safeguards and cut back on public spending designed to protect the environment.
But it is not just in East Asia and Latin America that we have cause for concern. I do not need to rehearse in the pages of this magazine the enormity of the challenge. The world's forests continue to be depleted at an alarming rate. Urban pollution takes a huge toll on people's health. Topsoil is washed away in vast quantities. Fishstocks are depleted devastatingly fast. There is mounting evidence of climate change. And all kinds of biological species, on land and under water, are threatened - in many instances, with extinction.
We need to lift our sights to more distant horizons. Political cycles are notoriously short. Economic methodologies tend to discount anything older than five years. And financial markets adjust in fractions of a second. None of this promotes the kind of long-term thinking that is needed for sustainable development.
We also need greater international dialogue and cooperation. This is where we will all benefit from a strong UNEP energetically engaged in assessing trends, harmonizing environmental standards and bringing the international community together. The momentum created by technological advances, the demands of public opinion and a new sense of government and corporate responsibility for the health of the planet provide an opportunity for UNEP to champion new approaches to dealing with pollution and conserving natural resources. No other international organization has the track record or mandate.
Many environmental problems will not be commanded or controlled. Others will not bend to the market. There are few easy answers but UNEP can serve us well if it brings its authority to documenting and disseminating experience about how to deal with intractable old environmental problems as well as emerging new ones. This would be a good way for UNEP not just to raise the world's environmental consciousness but to bring about a real change in the way
we understand and approach sustainable development.
The only way that we will succeed in making development more sustainable is by acting in partnership - with governments, international agencies, the private sector, local communities, non-governmental organizations and others. We look forward to a strengthened partnership with a strengthened UNEP in the months and years ahead.
Ian Johnson is Vice-President and Head of the World Bank's Network for Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development.