Culture, Values and the Environment Editorial



United Nations Under-Secretary General
and Executive Director, UNEP


By the time this edition of Our Planet reaches you, the HABITAT II Conference will have ended amidst calls to recognize that the economic and social prospects of nations in the next millennium will depend on the cities. The Conference will also have emphasized the imperative of local responsibility and education, as well as public policy, in encouraging environmentally friendly behaviour.

This is important because urbanization is regarded as a source of our dominant quantitative-growth approach to development. Urbanization is seen to de-emphasize the role of the natural environment. Never before have so many lived in a world so cut off from any understanding of the fragility and finiteness of resources. One result of this separation is the view that resources are virtually limitless - a basic assumption of technoculture.

The notions that the aim of the society is to maximize gross output from all processes, that the most vigorous and progressive nations are those which maintain high growth rates of energy consumption and the use of natural resources, and that technology is good and provides the means of solving humankind's problems, now transcend national identities and even political ideologies.

As these ideas have led to a drastic modification of the global environment, I think the time has come to reassess our most basic cultural beliefs. It is no longer valid to assume that someone else can bear the consequences of wasteful, thoughtless or inappropriate development. It is no longer valid to think in the short term or to place the immediate needs and desires of one group or species above those of others. And it is no longer valid to consider ourselves as being in command of or unaffected by natural processes. If we are to realize sustainability, we must successfully harmonize human needs, interests and activities with those of nature.

The challenge is to find new pathways to enhance the promise of a sustainable future. While the key to this lies in reassessing our way of life and the ethical and cultural values that govern it, answers may also be found in religious teachings and in the world view propounded by indigenous peoples.

Some people argue that the ideas and values for establishing an ecologically feasible and socially desirable society were conceived in the past and that they are failing because they run counter to the prevailing cultural ethos. But I believe that there is the need to exercise choice and discretion based on a system that values the environment for what it intrinsically stands for and not simply as a means of satisfying our needs.

The important role of cultural beliefs enshrined in human values is being increasingly recognized by the global community and is reflected in the expansion and strengthening of the environmental movement over the last 25 years. At the local level, this shift can be seen in the growth of the environmental self-help groups and neighbourhood action around the world. At the national level, political parties have begun to give environmental issues a central place on their agendas. And at the international level, the evolution of environmental values is reflected in the two international conferences held in Stockholm and Rio and their outcomes.

The cultural dimensions of environmental problems need to be examined thoroughly. Unless we come to an understanding of the beliefs and attitudes that underlie many of the destructive policies and behaviours threatening us, the identification and implementation of alternative paradigms and structures will at best be superficial.

People form the basis of every society and large-scale effects are ultimately attributable to the sum of actions by individuals. Our success or failure in bequeathing a sustainable future to our children will depend, ultimately, on the development of a critical, knowledgeable, reflective citizenry conscious of its environmental interests, values and priorities and possessing the wherewithal to effect change. Promoting such environmental citizenship is a learning task and one which will involve a fundamental redefinition of our relationship with the environment.

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