Sustainability First

From Chapter 4 of the
Global Environment Outlook Report 3

A new environment and development paradigm emerges in response to the challenge of sustainability, supported by new, more equitable values and institutions. A more visionary state of affairs prevails, where radical shifts in the way people interact with one another and with the world around them stimulate and support sustainable policy measures and accountable corporate behavior. There is much fuller collaboration between governments, citizens and other stakeholder groups in decision-making on issues of close common concern. A consensus is reached on what needs to be done to satisfy basic needs and realize personal goals without beggaring others or spoiling the outlook for posterity.

In the early years of the century, there is evidence of a compelling desire and demand among people everywhere for action to address the social, economic and environmental concerns affecting many regions of the world. The terrorist attacks on the United States and subsequent retaliation lend immediacy to calls to address economic, social and environmental concerns that are seen as the root causes of such extreme actions. A reinvigorated NGO community becomes a key channel through which citizens everywhere express their demands. The Internet amplifies what has become a global dialogue, or more accurately a multitude of dialogues, on the need for action.

An age of reflection …

Some of these exchanges take place in formal government arenas. Others, partly prompted by pressures from shareholders, employees and customers, are happening in industry, both within and among firms. Similarly, NGOs (including many that have a multinational presence) are reflecting upon their roles and missions. There are also fresh attempts to collaborate across the governmental, industrial and NGO sectors. In total, however, these efforts pale by comparison with the myriad dialogues between individuals and small groups of interested citizens within and across regions.

Much of this desire for remedial action is expressed in and around the lobbies of international activities, including the WSSD and other United Nations conferences, meetings of the G7/G8 group of nations, at the negotiations of the WTO and multilateral environmental agreements, and at meetings on specific social and environmental issues, such as climate change and HIV/AIDS.

At times, the formal events are overshadowed by parallel gatherings. For the most part, the mood of these gatherings is peaceable, akin to that of the Global Forum linked to the 1992 Earth Summit. Less in evidence are the anti-globalization protests seen at the meetings of the WTO in Seattle in 1999 and the G8 in Genoa in 2001. Their goal is to highlight the advances that are being made and to shape the agenda of the governmental meetings. There is greater emphasis on presenting the positive aspects of a societal transformation rather than the negative consequences of inaction. Over time, increasing numbers of representatives from industry and governments participate in these encounters, making them more successful in achieving this goal.

… and a time for action

Much of what is happening goes beyond mere dialogue. Rather than waiting for political leaders to take the initiative, many individuals and groups have begun to act on their own. They note the contrasting outcomes of the 1992 Earth Summit on an informal and local scale, such as the spread of Local Agenda 21 initiatives and those pitched at the more formal and international level, such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. They draw inspiration from past and present efforts of local grass-roots movements like the Green Belt movement in Kenya and the Chipko Andalan movement in India. They also recall successful interventions at international level, such as the campaign to end the production and use of landmines.

The business community is another source of inspiration, principally for its success in developing social investment funds and establishing social stock indices. Firms that address environmental issues ahead of regulation, exemplified by companies in the Climate Neutral Network, serve as role models. Also held up as role models are partnerships between governments and other groups, such as Ecotourism Namibia and Community-Based Fisheries Management in Phang-Nga Bay, Thailand.

The more that individuals and groups apply themselves to practical initiatives, the more hope grows that significant changes are possible. The media assist by making these efforts more visible. Progressive elements in government and business communities realize that this is the most promising channel for reform. They also recognize that efforts like these are needed to get to the sources of dissatisfaction that lie at the root of terrorist activities. This realization leads to the creation of alliances amongst individuals from various stakeholder groups in support of key initiatives.

The result is a mixture of old and new initiatives. Some initiatives are highly coordinated and involve large numbers of people. Others are pursued by small groups with wide ranging, but loosely knit connections at local, regional and global levels. Whereas some are formal and embedded in national and international law, many take a voluntary approach, such as the Global Reporting Initiative, Global Compact Initiative and financial initiatives set up by the United Nations and businesses.

Efforts continue to incorporate the results of scientific research and analysis more thoroughly into the policy making process. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the Global International Water Assessment and new studies on the nitrogen cycle and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) complement the ongoing investigation of climate change by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The POPs assessment is in part a response to compelling new evidence of the long-range transport of these pollutants and the effects of their presence on animal life in the polar regions. Much like the discovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica in the 1980s, these revelations stimulate intense effort to measure and counter the risk.

These new assessments differ fundamentally from past efforts. Firstly, they are designed to include more expertise from developing regions, and to build capacity in these regions. Secondly, the contributions of social scientists are given equal weight to those of the physical and natural scientists. Thirdly, wherever possible, the many regional and local studies that comprise large parts of these assessments recruit local and lay communities as partners in the research. This stems from the desire of these groups to have a voice in the development and understanding of the issues and in how to address particular concerns.

The knowledge that these individuals and groups (particularly indigenous groups) possess has been accorded increasing recognition. The participatory approach also acknowledges that scope for action extends beyond official government channels and depends upon involvement of local communities.

Setting goals and targets and designing activities to achieve them, builds upon ongoing efforts, but also reflects progress in striking a balance between formal and informal institutions. Social and environmental goals are re-affirmed, among them reducing food insecurity and infant mortality, increasing life expectancy and literacy, stabilizing climate, halting deforestation and reversing declines in fisheries.

Rather than laying down specific numbers, quotas and timetables, however, more attention is paid to increasing accountability and transparency by instituting monitoring systems and placing responsibility on governments, industries, NGOs and others to disclose information in relation to agreed goals. The underlying principle is that the widespread availability of good information and appropriate checks and balances will encourage progress towards these goals, either directly or by way of pressure from an increasingly vocal citizenry. The goal of policy, in this scenario, is to support the efforts of individuals and groups, in government as well as in civil society, within the non-profit sector as well in the marketplace, to pursue sustainable development.

This evolving approach calls for a reappraisal of existing multilateral agreements. The list includes environmentally oriented agreements such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. It also features more socially oriented conventions such as those on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and on the Rights of the Child.

The process of revision provides momentum, too, for the continuing reassessment of international institutions of governance, with a view to transforming them into more effective organizations. The United Nations, major financial institutions such as the World Bank, regional development banks and the IMF and the WTO are all included. Transparency and accountability are key aspects of this course of action. Similar processes are ongoing in business, voluntary and other sectors.

At regional level, new and old organizations become increasingly active. The Federation of Caribbean Nations grows out of the former CARICOM. In Europe, the growth of the EU proceeds with considerable deference paid to maintaining and improving relationships with the Russian Federation. Africa sees the further evolution of the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN). Most regions also explore greater integration of policies related to trade, migration, the management of water resources and similar transboundary issues. In this way, the regional efforts become part of a semi-formal web of global public policy networks.

A great swing

The journey that these processes set in motion is a long one. It takes many years and does not proceed without constant pressure and action from many sectors of society. A profound set of changes, which were only hinted at in the early years of the century, gradually unfolds, quietly most of the time, not so quietly at others. People everywhere begin to embrace the idea of a ‘new sustainability paradigm’ that promises to transcend conventional values and lifestyles. This new paradigm combines a powerful personal and philosophical dimension with concern over economic growth, technological potential and political eventualities.

Among more affluent people and groups, disenchantment with consumerism sparks off a quest for more fulfilling and ethical ways of living that can restore a sense of meaning and purpose to their existence. The values of simplicity, cooperation and community begin to displace those of consumerism, competition and individualism. More time is spent on study, art, hobbies and engaging in the wider community.

The success of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa, East Timor and elsewhere stimulate similar exercises in other places, including less strictly political settings, such as within the tobacco and chemicals industries. The positive results of the peacemaking process in Northern Ireland and Bosnia enhance efforts in other regions. Dialogues between the world’s major religions, directly stimulated by the terrorist activities against the United States and subsequent retaliation, further help to create the foundation for greater understanding and cooperation.

In some regions, the mood of society is a mixture of battle fatigue and disgust with current leaders. Small-scale but locally significant environmental disasters also have an effect on this mood. These factors combine to make more people willing to explore and question fundamental beliefs. Citizens and consumers, where possible with their votes and wallets and otherwise with their feet and their voices, make it clear that progressive businesses and governments will be rewarded while others will be rejected. At some point, a critical mass is reached, whereby activities that have until now appeared isolated and of little consequence, begin to spread and affect broader regions.

In developing regions and amongst indigenous communities everywhere, a new generation of thinkers, leaders and activists emerges to join and shape the global dialogue. Many regions draw on the dual legacy of nature-conscious traditional societies and ideas of visionary thinkers seeking better paths for development. Cultural renaissance evolves in many regions, rooted in respect for tradition and an appreciation of local human and natural resources. Young people from all regions and cultures play a key role in promoting these values. The increased opportunity to meet and learn from others of their generation, both virtually and in person, fuels a rediscovery of idealism as they join together in the project of forging a global community.

What is new in the current discussion is the willingness of people to reflect upon the positive and negative aspects of their own actions and legacies as well as those of other cultures. Many of these debates are launched within the developing world, engaging an ever-expanding circle of stakeholders.

The notion that the prevailing market oriented wisdom is both insufficient and undesirable garners more and more support. This switch is most significant in North America and Western Europe, as well as among many of the affluent in other regions, who have been seen as the key purveyors and beneficiaries of this approach to development. At the same time, it is recognized that the increasing openness and participation in governance have played a key role in the advances that have improved life for many people in many parts of the world.

This change of heart gives rise to more measured discussions about the seemingly inexorable spread of globalization in all of its forms. The realization grows that, even if it were possible, it would not be desirable to stem this tide completely. Around the world, from Latin America to Africa to West Asia, the re-examination of history leads to new approaches for dealing with the changes happening in and outside their regions. Inevitably, this re-think is influenced in part by the return of many former emigrants, for brief periods or permanently, who have gained experience and understanding of how cultures can learn from each other without losing their own identity.

A redefinition of roles …

With the growth in global public policy networks, governments, particularly at the national level, often find themselves trying to keep up with what is happening in other sectors and at other levels. In a sense, the leaders have become followers, although they continue to have significant roles. They remain responsible for setting and implementing overall national policy and negotiating and ratifying international treaties. Nation states remain the key players in the areas of national and international security. The public sector retains a pivotal regulatory role, as awareness dawns that laissez faire policies often promoted in the name of economic development do nothing to correct flaws in market practices. It also holds a brief to amend existing policies (notably subsidies for natural resource extraction) that encourage such imperfections.

Demand for more participation, transparency and accountability on all sides drives a number of policy shifts. A move away from reliance on exported raw materials towards producing more value added locally is highlighted in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa and parts of North America. Expansion of micro-credit and similar schemes is particularly important in the developing world, enabling small-scale producers and manufacturers to purchase the inputs needed to increase the scale and productivity of their operations. Another pattern that emerges worldwide is a shift in the nature of taxes and subsidies towards promoting more sustainable habits of resource use.

New opportunities arise from looking at problems on a larger scale, with a view to recognizing limits and identifying solutions. One example is the opportunity to couple the issues of ageing and shrinking workforces in Europe and parts of Asia and the Pacific, with continued population growth and migration pressures in other regions. Another involves drawing more conscious links between the issue of water stress and the trading of ‘virtual’ water in the form of agricultural products. This linkage is accorded high priority within susceptible regions, such as West Asia as part of the Arab Free Trade Association, but it also occurs in region-to-region discussions.

… and a redirection of actions

Actions are taken in many regions to preserve major biodiversity hotspots. In Europe and North America, major efforts are made to establish large-scale networks of protected areas and green corridors. Some of the most significant activities hinge on the management of common resources. Ocean fisheries receive greater attention. For this and other reasons, the high Arctic regions and the continent of Antarctica are increasingly recognized as part of a common global heritage. A fundamental revision of the Antarctic legal regime sets an example for similar action in the Arctic, where indigenous groups play a significant role, individually and through the Arctic Council. It becomes widely accepted that the polar regions have to be maintained as places apart, with special rules regarding human activity.

Cooperation on these and other issues also prompts moves to address the tensions at the root of many ongoing conflicts. Sometimes these conflicts and their impact on other regions catalyse the formation of broad coalitions. The changing nature of security threats, as evidenced in the early part of the century and the pressures from businesses and other groups with strong cross-national connections, push nations towards increasingly multilateral efforts on many issues. At other times, the resolution and avoidance of conflicts are the results of networks and policies that have been established for other purposes. For example, as borders become more open and responsibility shifts from the nation state both downward to more local levels and upward to more multinational levels, many disputes in countries and in border areas in several regions, calm down or fade away entirely.

Underlying many of these shifts are policies to boost transparency and accountability. These policies include more and better certification and labeling requirements, often building upon efforts started by industry. The Forest Stewardship Council, Global Forest Watch and Marine Stewardship Council spawn similar efforts focusing on other resources. These efforts in turn influence other areas of policy, such as trade, foreign debt and the enforcement of multilateral environmental treaties. In the developing world, a major investment program is undertaken to strengthen capacities of governments, businesses (especially small and medium enterprises), NGOs and local communities to develop, access and use information. These changes are reflected in increased monitoring and communication. As much as any other business sector, the commercial media has shifted away from a pure emphasis on profit towards establishing a broader role in society.

There are also fundamental shifts in terms of how the data used to track development are measured, analyzed and presented. Aggregate figures that hide discrepancies between, for example, genders and social groups, or between urban and rural areas, give way to more disaggregated data collection and reporting. The changes are highlighted by the continuing evolution of the United Nations System of National Accounts, especially the shift away from Gross Domestic Product as the major indicator of development. Environmental, economic and social indicators track real progress at all scales - business, national, regional and global - giving the public a more informed basis for seeking change. New technologies also play a big role, both as catalysts for, and in response to, many of these changes. Developments in information and communication technologies enable groups to connect to and learn from each other, by sharing success stories, but also by exposing behavior, whether legal or illegal, existing or planned, that gives cause for disquiet. These technologies also become more instrumental in coordinating social, political and economic activities. They are the natural medium for a new consciousness, providing a sense of immediacy and unity to a diverse and pluralistic movement.

New technologies play an instrumental role in progress towards goals already set. Among such advances are improvements in energy and water use efficiency, desalination and medical technologies and treatment. These breakthroughs are closely linked to general developments in the areas of nano-technology and biotechnology. Governments, businesses and other private organizations stimulate much of the technological development, not only by direct investment in research and development, but also by offering worthwhile prizes for new developments.

In the areas of biotechnology and genetic engineering, there is strong awareness of potential issues related to biosafety, bioterrorism and moral concerns. Biotechnology also becomes increasingly linked to biodiversity research within regions. Concerns over genetic engineering continue to run high, but they are eased somewhat as developments in this area take on a more regional profile, both in terms of who is undertaking and benefiting from the research and the raw materials used in the processes. Carefully controlled studies in many regions, including Asia and the Pacific, West Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean and Africa, highlight the use of endemic resources.

Small and large businesses, in partnership with NGOs, provide valuable support in setting standards and guidelines, technology transfer and mentoring programs. They also take greater responsibility for the whole life cycle of projects and products. This includes not only activities related to normal practice, but also those related to infrastructure development, recovery of post-consumption wastes, capacity building and preparing employees and communities for periods of transition, such as when projects end or operations shift to another locality.

No turning back?

These widespread changes unfold at different rates in different regions. By the year 2032, some shifts are already well on the way to a new, more stable level of functional completion, while others are only beginning to take off. Although there have been setbacks, these have not been major or widespread. The reason for this smooth passage lies in the nature of the process which, while somewhat chaotic and unplanned at times has been driven from the grass roots up with strong support at higher levels. The degree of participation between governments and society, and the ongoing evolution of basic beliefs have been instrumental in allowing governments to pursue policies that would not otherwise have been possible. Examples are the establishment of land and marine sanctuaries and major shifts in the constructive use of tax breaks and penalties.

Furthermore, as businesses, NGOs and governments, working together or apart, achieve notable success, they push for action to encourage others to follow. The evidence of these accrued benefits helps governments in taking action, as they make it very difficult for those who are opposed to them to argue against the feasibility of meeting new targets. And as formal actions are taken, they act as a ratchet, keeping the advances from slipping back.

The interlinked sets of changes that have occurred during the first three decades of the new millennium are clearly part of a broad societal transformation. Although no one would argue that sustainability has been achieved, there is a clear sense that the world is moving in the right direction and there is no turning back.

Copyright © 2002, United Nations Environment Programme
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