Remaking industrial civilization

OUR PLANET 9.1 - The Way Ahead

Remaking industrial civilization


assesses the contrasting performance of governments
and peoples since the Earth Summit in an interview
with Geoffrey Lean, and outlines priorities for
the special session

lab Up to his early 40s Maurice Strong's main experience of summits was climbing in the Himalayas in 1952 and visiting Sherpa Tenzing, about to be one of the conquerors of Everest. But as world leaders gather in New York in June for the special session of the United Nations General Assembly on the environment, he is, at 68, able to survey the scene from the perspective of someone who has led an expedition to the top of this particular mountain twice before.

As he looks in one direction - towards the grassroots and local government, business and the professions - there is unexpectedly vigorous activity. In another, among governments, there is disappointingly little. And as yet, he says, there is little sign of the 'fundamental change of course' that is needed if the world is to get to grips with the environmental crisis.

Any search for a single person who embodies the international battle to get the world to make this change would start and end with Maurice Strong. No one has been at the centre of it for so long, so persistently, and at such a high level.

The Canadian businessman, environmentalist and international public servant was chief executive of the 1972 Stockholm Conference, which put the environment on the international agenda, and Secretary-General of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, which brought an unprecedented concentration of world leaders together to address it. He founded UNEP, as its first Executive Director, and has now, on its 25th anniversary, been asked by Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary-General, to consult with governments on its future.

Born into poverty in the tiny railway community of Oak Lake, Manitoba, in 1929, he made a fortune in business by his mid-30s (and climbed in the Himalayas) before doing 'something more satisfying' by becoming a civil servant to overhaul Canada's foreign aid programme. Long before, at 18, he had worked at the infant United Nations as an assistant security pass officer: now, as Executive Coordinator for United Nations Reform, he is in charge of rejuvenating the middle-aged organization for the next millennium.

When we spoke, he had just returned from two more 'summits' - another 'Earth Summit' (the Rio+5 Forum) bringing together leaders of civil society in Rio, and the Global Summit for the Environment in Tokyo, involving the current and three former prime ministers of the country.

The Rio Forum built on what he sees as the most encouraging development of the last five years, the extent to which civil society has taken possession of Agenda 21, the action programme adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit. Some 1,800 towns, cities and other local governments around the world have now adopted their own Agenda 21s.

'This is the most important single development of the past five years,' he says. 'In 1992 we perceived that the big environmental issues had often primarily to be tackled at the local level, though within a global context. Agenda 21 has caught fire at the grassroots with all these local initiatives linked to the global agenda.

'This movement is accelerating. It is the best evidence of the way that Agenda 21 has established itself in the minds of people and the world community as a very important guideline for our environmental future.'

There has been a similar 'explosion of initiatives' in business and among the professions. The membership of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which includes some of the world's largest companies, has doubled. About a hundred countries have set up their own National Councils for Sustainable Development: this year's Rio Forum received the news that 97 of the country's leading corporations had just formed a National Business Council in Brazil.

Key sector commitment

Meanwhile, 'the professional bodies of architects and engineers have committed themselves to sustainable development. So have other key sectors, such as the world's largest industry, tourism: the World Tourist and Travel Council has adopted its own Agenda 21. And the International Road Transport Union has adopted an environmental charter as its own version.'

There is increasing evidence of grassroots public support, as opinion polls testify from around the world. While Strong was recently in Brazil, for example, a poll reported that two-thirds of the country's people put the environment ahead of employment in importance - a remarkable finding in a developing country with high unemployment. At first the pollsters did not believe the result, and carried out the survey again, only to get the same response.

All this shows that 'there has been a gradual, delayed but pervasive response to the 1992 Earth Summit. It may not have been followed by an explosion of immediate action, but there has been a permeating spread of awareness and activity. Among civil society, it has been even more encouraging than I ever expected.'

By contrast, he says, the relative lack of action by governments has been 'one of the biggest disappointments. Virtually all governments have done some good things, but on balance their performance has been disappointing, and has not measured up to the challenge.'

He gives the example of implementing the Framework Convention on Climate Change, where it is now clear that most developed countries will not meet even the treaty's modest target of stabilizing their greenhouse-gas emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000. It is, he says, 'vitally important' that the Conference of the Parties to the Convention in Kyoto in December succeeds in adopting stricter targets for the future - and that these are fulfilled.

The record of developed country governments on official development assistance provides a similar disappointment. 'The additional financial resources that developing countries were led to expect, at least to some degree, have not been forthcoming. Indeed most developed countries have actually reduced their development assistance.'

On the other side of the coin, he adds, 'developing countries - while expressing deep disappointment - have not waited for the rich but have gone ahead with their own programmes. After once seeing environmental issues as mainly of concern to industrial countries, they are now themselves experiencing even greater crises and have a much greater awareness of their own local problems.'

truck in mountains

No change of course

But the bottom line is that 'while there has been some significant progress over the last years, we have not yet seen the fundamental change of course that was called for at Rio. We can rejoice that there has been a resumption of economic growth, particularly in developing countries - but it is on the same pattern as we have experienced in the past and will give rise to the same kind of dramatic environmental consequences.'

Though there have been times over the quarter of a century and more that Strong has been at the heart of the issue when governments have taken the lead, now, as so often, 'the pressure is coming from below'. But this is hardly surprising. 'We are faced with the remaking of industrial civilization. Major revolutions or major shifts like this are obviously not usually driven from within the established institutions, including governments.'

The strength of public opinion has recently been borne out in the United States where, as Strong puts it, there was 'a recession of political will' over the environment after the Earth Summit. This recession was particularly marked in Congress, which mistook public impatience with an overemphasis on regulations in environmental protection for hostility towards the issue as a whole, despite copious opinion poll evidence to the contrary. When the new Republican Congressional majority started trying to dismantle the framework of protection after the 1994 mid-term elections, there was a public revolt. The resulting backlash played a key part in some Congressional elections last year, and helped to re-elect President Clinton.

The recent Rio follow-up Forum was designed precisely to harness and increase the worldwide grassroots groundswell. 'It was centred on people. Activists were invited to the Forum to meet others and to put multipliers on good experiences and best practices.'

The Forum began to tidy up an important piece of unfinished business from the 1992 Earth Summit with a draft of an Earth Charter, a document designed to stand alongside the Rights of Man. And it also addressed two major issues which Strong hopes will be at the top of the special session's agenda.

Firstly, he says, 'it endorsed the idea of a global environmental agency, built on the foundations of UNEP, with the same status and strength as the World Bank or the World Trade Organization. This also got support at the Tokyo meeting, so it is gaining currency.'

Some, he says, see the new organization as a stronger UNEP, some as a new and different institution. He does not expect the special session to agree the details, but he does hope that there will be agreement in principle to set up a process of negotiation to design and establish it.

Secondly, the Forum devoted much attention to how to use existing funds, by reforming tax and fiscal systems. For example, he says, the Earth Council has produced a report which showed that tens of billions of dollars are spent subsidizing the unsustainable use of energy (including in transport) and water.

New system needed

Subsidizing water in developing countries, for example, effectively subsidizes the middle class at the expense of the poor because it uses money that would otherwise be used to extend services to places that do not have piped water. Yet the poor have consistently shown that they are prepared to pay for water - even paying street vendors ten times the price charged for public supplies.

'No amount of new money will make up for the wastage of existing money. If governments would recognize at the special session that they need to reorganize their system of economic incentives and penalties so as to promote sustainable development, that would do wonders.'

Meanwhile the need for the missing change of direction gets ever more urgent, he says. 'It is a bit like cancer in the human body. At the beginning the symptoms are not very acute and something comparatively minor, like a cold, can distract your attention. As the cancer progresses it starts to reveal ever more serious effects, but by the time the victim does pay attention it is very often too late. The longer the failure to treat it, the greater the risk it will prove fatal.

'Every year, every day and every hour that we fail to take the action needed to change course similarly increases the risks of inaction - and the cost of the shift that will eventually have to be made'.

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Looking Forward 1999
Maurice F. Strong: The Way Ahead (UNEP 25) 1997
Mostafa K. Tolba: Redefining UNEP (UNEP 25) 1997

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