Our Planet 7.6 Editorial



United Nations Under-Secretary General
and Executive Director, UNEP


Few more momentous endeavours have ever been undertaken than the attempt to change today's patterns of production and consumption. The worldwide switch to sustainable development will require a revolution as great, in many ways, as the establishment of agriculture thousands of years ago or the Industrial Revolution that began in the 18th century - and it will have to be completed in a fraction of the time. And yet the task is not just impressively great and urgently necessary: it is also enticingly possible.

The momentum of the present patterns is awesome indeed. It took from the dawn of human history to the beginning of this century for the world economy to grow to $600 billion. Now it increases by more than that every two years. The worldwide use of energy is rising by 2.5 per cent a year, while consumption of water and minerals has more than doubled since 1960. And four-fifths of this accelerating consumption is by just one-fifth of the world's population.

These patterns are ecologically unsustainable: they are already straining the natural capacity of the planet, even at present levels of economic activity. They are socially unsustainable: no human society can long withstand the inequalities they perpetuate and increase. And they are spiritually unsustainable, for humanity cannot live by materialism alone. Left unchecked, they will drive economies and the environment towards collapse.

Changing course is going to be difficult, but it has enormous attractions. Far from requiring a return to hairshirt economies, it holds out the best prospect of future prosperity. The demand for new techniques and technologies for sustainable living offers business that most valuable asset, a spur to innovation. And the new challenges of sustainability offer developing countries the chance to 'leapfrog' over industrial economies into the world of tomorrow, instead of running to catch up with increasingly outmoded systems. The prime responsibility for initiating change, and reducing the consumption of resources and the production of wastes, nevertheless rests with the industrialized countries who have mainly created the present crisis.

The challenge is to replace economies that depend on an ever increasing throughput of goods and materials, with those that rely on more durable products and services, on conserving resources and on maximizing efficiency. Both supply and demand must be tackled simultaneously if this is to be done. Producers must develop new products, technologies and management practices - including cleaner production - that will increase the efficiency with which they use resources five to ten times over. And consumers will have to demand more eco-efficient products.

Both regulations and economic incentives will be needed. Consumers will have to have much more reliable and relevant information - through ecolabelling, for example, if they are to make rational decisions. And prices will have to reflect the true environmental costs of production.

UNEP - in response to the request of its Governing Council, and in liaison with the Commission on Sustainable Development - has made the promotion of sustainable production and consumption patterns one of its five priority programmes. With limited - and shrinking - resources, it is nevertheless at the centre of the world's efforts to develop both awareness of the need for change and the responses that will bring it about. This issue of Our Planet is one contribution to the momentous task ahead.

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