Valuing the Environment

Valuing the Environment


calls for a mobilization of moral vision and changed lifestyle to forestall 'environmental winter'


When the Barbarians were at the gates of Rome, and it appeared that everything that people had taken for granted was about to be destroyed, St Benedict sought to maintain that which was most threatened. He swore his monks to a threefold vow - not of poverty, chastity and obedience, but of poverty, chastity and stability. They committed their allegiance, not to a leader, nor to an organization, but to a particular place. That was essential at a time of tempestuous change. However, throughout history, human beings have drawn strength from their roots. They need the security of belonging somewhere.

Of course, roots can also be restrictive. They can confine opportunities and confound ambitions. But if civilization is to flower and offer us the chance to develop our full potential it needs healthy and well-nourished roots. A society which does not grow will not be able to satisfy many basic human needs. 'Sustainable development' is a recent and much misunderstood term. But at its heart is an ancient article of faith: that without a moral vision our material capabilities will destroy us.

The stakes are very high. At worst is the Domesday scenario predicted by some: population overload, complete climate change, destruction of our natural habitats and massive extinction of species, desertification, gross pollution of our rivers and seas - even of the air we breathe. Only the optimism of faith prevents me from sharing that pessimism; I believe that we will find a way through, but to do so will mean engaging huge numbers of people in effective remedial action. We must all begin to recognize our vulnerability. Pressures on our non-renewable resources were graphically underlined by the first oil crisis; and now it seems our renewable resources face perhaps the greatest risk from overconsumption - particularly those like the oceans, which are in common ownership and thus apparently the responsibility of no one.

A global concern

And we are all in this together. The need to encompass population growth and other demographic changes and to develop more sustainable consumption and production patterns is a problem for the industrialized world as much as for the developing one. In England, with close to zero population growth, our most recent household projections indicate that we may well need some 4.4 million more homes over the next 20 years to cater for more single-parent households, created by the welcome factor of longevity and the deeply destructive increase in marriage breakdown. How far can we accommodate that extra housing? How do we use existing urban areas in ways which improve the quality of our towns and cities? Do we also have to decide between expanding existing urban areas or building new towns and villages? HABITAT II is therefore just as important for us in informing our decisions as it is for other less developed nations.

Effective stewardship of the world is not only an economic imperative, but also a moral one. At Rio the international community recognized the need to bring a halt to the damage to the environment. For example, we need to ensure that everyone has access to water that is fit to drink. We need to limit climate change so that we can all continue to enjoy and profit both spiritually and economically from a world whose landscapes and wildlife we recognize and value. But we need to get the message across that the damage that is occurring is not just the result of greed by people bent on making a fast buck; nor even just of the indifference of politicians. Pressures on the environment are the result of the individual choices that millions of people make every day about the way they lead their lives, the demands they make on resources and the waste they generate. Environmental protection and enhancement is therefore more a matter of changing lifestyles than making declarations or passing laws.

As leaders we have a moral duty both to ensure that everyone understands the consequences of their decisions and to develop a clear view of the action necessary to achieve the environmental standards which are demanded by many. A recent survey showed that 82 per cent of people in the United Kingdom are concerned about the loss of our plants and animals. We need to convert such concern - which is better developed and articulated in some parts of the world than others - into an informed commitment to take effective remedial and preventative action. Understand too what we mean by the slogan 'think globally, act locally' - for example, that if individuals want to tackle climate change, they must use energy efficiently - and that this starts from measures as easy and painless as switching off unnecessary lights. Other changes will be much harder, and perhaps the toughest for the developed and the fast-developing world will be to bring individuals to understand that they too must cut their own use of the car and not simply expect others to do so. Whilst we have already had some success in changing public attitudes - to smoking, drink-driving and so on - governments have little experience in bringing about the degree of change that is required to attain sustainable development. But unless people start to change their lifestyles and begin to express different values through the way they choose to lead their lives, it will not be possible for politicians and business people to halt the pressures on the environment.

UNEP's pivotal role

I see a crucial role for the United Nations here, given the global dimension of the issues and the moral authority that the organization brings. Since Rio, the United Kingdom has worked hard with colleagues in international fora, such as the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the annual sessions of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), to develop consensus between North and South. This sort of cooperation is essential if we are to continue to make progress. And in this, UNEP has an absolutely pivotal role to play in bringing to bear its expertise and in developing into a global environmental monitor and voice, helping to catalyse effective government action.

Regulation, economic instruments and voluntary measures also have a role to play, provided we can find the right mix. Price signals and other market mechanisms offer a way of changing the behaviour of industry and individuals to take account of environmental costs and benefits. Ecolabels allow consumers to make more informed choices about products, and voluntary management schemes help businesses demonstrate their performance to customers and the public. Environmental education and training are vitally important in influencing future patterns of behaviour and once people understand the benefits of sustainable development action, they may be spurred to become more energy efficient or to recycle waste. We need to develop mechanisms that deliver agreements to which everyone (industry, the voluntary sector and the general public, as well as government and international bodies) can sign up.

Thinking green

wind turbinesTo help get this message across to the British public after Rio, I set up the campaigning organization, Going for Green. In February last year it launched a campaign to reduce land, air and water pollution; create, protect and improve local environments; and reduce demands on precious resources by encouraging individuals to think green in their daily lives. A green code has been issued to show what simple steps can be taken to improve the environment and pilot projects set up to measure and thereby improve the effectiveness of its campaigns.

I am eager to promote a deeper understanding of the complex interplay between the issues raised by sustainable development. I was therefore delighted to be able to publish what I believe to be the first set of national sustainable development indicators. Indicators of sustainable development for the United Kingdom is designed to help inform businesses and individuals, as well as government and policy makers, of the ways in which the environment is changing and how this is linked to economic development. Some show positive trends. For example, since 1970, primary energy consumption has remained broadly stable while the economy has grown by 60 per cent; as a result the energy ratio has followed a generally downward trend over the last 25 years. On the other hand, the average journey length for commuting has increased by 40 per cent, for shopping by 35 per cent and for taking children to school by 40 per cent over the last 20 years. Such indicators are not a substitute for the more detailed analyses required for policy formulation. Yet if we cannot measure we cannot deliver. We can all become overloaded with data and miss the key messages in the wealth of environmental, economic and social statistics that exist. The indicators aim to highlight the main issues and trends, and help us to consider how our own actions have an effect on the environment.

By highlighting the main trends, the indicators can help to shape policies. But they can only form part of a wider strategy; we must carry on revising and refining these policies, so that our economy can continue to grow in a way that does not cheat on our children. In the United Kingdom, the Government's Annual Report on sustainable development and the environment is a valuable means of auditing performance, publicizing new policies and setting priorities. At the international level, the CSD offers an important forum to maintain the momentum for action and the 1997 meeting of the General Assembly will require us all to take stock of our own action and of global progress.

Sustainable development presents the world with a huge challenge. But I take comfort from the example of St. Benedict. He and his followers kept civilization alive throughout the Dark Ages. As we approach the new millennium, the Barbarians of an environmental winter are at our gates. We can drive them back only if we mobilize whole populations to commit themselves to the battle for sustainable development.

The Rt Hon John Gummer MP is Secretary of State for the Environment in the United Kingdom.

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