European Affairs

We Need a More Sustainable Civilization     Print Email

Chairman, the Earth Council

As we look toward the Johannesburg Summit on Sustain- able Development in August, we can see that there are considerable differences in approach between Europe and the United States. But let us remember that these differences in approach are not differences in fundamental interests, or in ultimate goals and purposes.

It is the similarity of those ultimate goals that leads me to believe that Europe and America will in the end come together to make the Johannesburg conference an important milestone on the road toward a more sustainable civilization.

I believe that we are in a process of civilizational change. We have reached that point in human history where human activities and the scale and intensity of population growth and economic advance are beginning to affect the conditions on this planet that will determine the future of humanity.

That is an awesome fact, the implications of which we have not yet fully taken on board. We are literally in command of our own future. We are affecting those vital marginal conditions that have made the good life we enjoy on Earth feasible. This is the larger context in which all these issues should be seen, including the pervasive problem of world poverty.

Although poverty is not a new issue, it has recently emerged into greater prominence, as indeed it should. Poverty is behind many of the expressions of frustration and the protests that are occurring around the world, which in their extreme form become terrorism. The persistence of dire poverty in the wealthiest civilization ever and the growing gap between rich and poor is an affront to its moral foundations and a threat to its sustainability.

For every demonstrator on the street who believes that globalization poses a threat, there are many more at home who feel some sympathy with the protests. People genuinely believe that somehow or other, in ways which perhaps they do not all understand, their lives and their futures are being affected by forces beyond their control.

For some time now there has been a widespread view, even in the business community, that our present industrial civilization is not viable and that we have to change course. That change of course called for at the Earth Summit ten years ago has not been made, although we have made some steps along the way. It is even more necessary today.

We can't expect Johannesburg to solve all our problems. We can and must expect that it will provide new impetus toward fulfilling existing commitments, which arise from a whole series of conventions, treaties and international agreements.

One of the real problems is that we are simply not living up to the high aspirations that gave rise to those agreements. That impetus needs to be re-vitalized.

The political environment, however, is very cloudy. Positions have changed, and governments are understandably preoccupied with the immediate dangers of terrorism. The agendas outlined at past international conferences, in Stockholm in 1972 and in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, have been to some degree sidetracked.

But that cannot continue, because our response to the challenge of sustainable development will have a far more fundamental impact on the future of the human condition than most of the other issues that preoccupy us today.

The issues of sustainable development are all very closely related in the context of globalization. They are not isolated issues that can be dealt with in a conventional way, issue by issue, through issue-related institutions and issue-related initiatives.

The cause and effect relationships through which human activities are affecting our future are systemic in nature. We need to learn how to deal with them in a more systemic way.

Johannesburg must at the very least give new impetus to implementing and building on past commitments by governments and other sectors of society, and, for the first time, set criteria to permit a more effective evaluation of progress. My number one hope is that Europe and America can get together to make this possible.

Though we regret it, we must respect the decision of the Bush administration to take a different approach to climate change, while hoping that by Johannesburg the U.S. position will have drawn closer to the provisions of the Kyoto Protocol. We cannot expect any early reversal by the United States of a position taken by its President with a great deal of seriousness, but I am encouraged that some positive signs are emerging.

I hope there will be further movement, so that U.S. policy can become complementary to the position of those who continue to support Kyoto. The goals are the same; the objectives are the same; and we all are going to share the consequences of inaction. We must continue to sit around the same table to resolve our differences.

I believe that ultimately all our political leaders, both in democratic countries and in those that are not, will have to listen to their people. I believe that the American people are increasingly signaling that they have a deep concern for these issues.

I see signs that this administration is listening and is responding. So, I am encouraged to believe that we shall soon see more tangible evidence of the cooperation that is so necessary between Europe, America and Japan.

I believe in the market system, but it needs the kind of policy framework and signals that come from governments. Would anybody want to trust our defense to the market system? Does not the government need to make the decisions as to what it wants and then challenge and provide incentives to the private sector to produce it? What about the accounting profession? Would it be right just to let accountants function as they wish? We know now that that does not work.

We need to have a system that encourages the private sector and unleashes its creativity in meeting public policy objectives; but which sets these objectives and creates a level playing field on which private enterprise can operate. At the same time, the system must give the private sector the §exibility to meet these requirements in the most innovative and competitive ways.

I do not think experience shows that the market system alone can do all the things sought by those of us who believe in a sustainable future.

Energy is at the center of many of our concerns. I hope Johannesburg will support the creation of a consultative group on clean energy. Such a body would be closely modeled on the consultative group on international agricultural research, which was formed over 25 years ago when an impending food crisis in developing countries seemed to present an ominous international threat.

That group rallied support for research and helped developing countries to reap the benefits of the research. As a result, some of those countries, such as India, are now exporting food.

The interesting thing about such groups is that they are not new institutions and do not even need to be formally incorporated. But they work. They do what governments want in bringing the different sectors together around an "action" agenda, including private foundations and corporations.

The role of an energy consultative group should be, first of all, to focus on priorities that need attention and more resources, particularly those that will help developing countries make the energy transition without endangering their sustainability in the future - or our sustainability.

What they do will affect us in the developed countries as much as what we do ourselves. So it is in our own interest to help developing countries to obtain the incremental financing they need to adopt the best technologies.

There are also, of course, increasing demands for a place at the table from representatives of civil society in all its various manifestations. Of course they cannot be given the same kind of place as governments. We cannot accommodate them all. But there is a real opportunity for governments to say in Johannesburg that they welcome the prospect of civil society getting together and forming what I would call a "world collaborative for sustainable development," where all the different sectors could come together to present their views and provide their advice.

Although, non-governmental organizations cannot be given absolute decision-making authority, it would be greatly beneficial if governments, the United Nations, the World Bank and others signaled that they would be willing to listen to the results of such a dialogue, or even participate in it, while not being bound by its decisions. Such a gesture would also defuse some of the pressures for a place at the official table that are hard for governments to accommodate.

Thirty years ago in Stockholm, in a sense, we lost our innocence. We began to acknowledge that much of what we were doing to advance our prosperity and economic growth was in fact having counterproductive and unexpected effects on us and on our future prospects and in fact undermining the development process in developing countries.

Why is it that we now know a lot about what we need to do to stop undermining our future and yet, despite our economic and technological progress, our business skills and our natural ingenuity, we are still not doing it on the scale required?

The Earth Council recently conducted a study on how government subsidies affect environmental performance and found that over $700 billion annually is spent by governments in various industrial, energy and agricultural subsidies that actually run counter to sustainable development objectives. More recent estimates have put the figure at over $1 trillion.

It is not just a little more money around the margins that we need. We need to revamp how we use our money within the existing system. This would provide more than enough to meet our past commitments and to fulfill all the extra needs of developing countries, which are doing the same as us - they are wasting a lot of their funds.

It is too late in the game for Johannesburg to agree on major changes in this field. But there is still time to agree to review the system of fiscal measures, regulations and policies, and subsidies that provide incentives for corporations and consumers.

It would be of great benefit just to examine the existing system, to study how reforms can be made, while releasing funds that provide positive incentives for sustainability. That would do more to solve the problem than all the marginal funding that emerges from conferences.

I believe that all people and nations are at the deepest level motivated by fundamental moral, ethical and spiritual values. More and more people are realizing that things are not progressing because these values are not being invoked in setting our priorities.

This is why I have been working with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and millions of others around the world to develop what we call an Earth Charter, a statement of basic moral and ethical principles designed to guide people and nations in their behavior toward the Earth and towards each other.

We are not asking governments to accept the Charter as a legal agreement, but we hope that the Johannesburg conference will recognize it as a genuine expression of people's commitment to theethical foundations of sustainable development and to the basic principles that governments themselves have enunciated from Stockholm through Rio de Janeiro.

I believe that the future of the world depends on our making this difficult transition to a "sustainable development civilization," and that this will open up new opportunities for business, for people and for creativity. Such a transition should not threaten the status quo any more than the abolition of slavery or child labor did.

Business did quite well after those breakthroughs, and business is adjusting now, though not fully yet, to the need for a sustainable pathway to a civilization which I believe has immense promise, but only if we make the transition to that pathway. A revitalization of cooperation between Europe and America could produce at Johannesburg the new momentum to this transition that has now become so urgent.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number III, Issue number III in the Summer of 2002.

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