Er. Mohammad Ashraf Fazili FIE
April 22 is celebrated as Earth day on international level. Mother earth is a gift of nature, on which we are born, on it our lives are sustained for years together and ultimately we return into it. It calls for our great attention to protect it from all kinds of our disrespect like soil, air, water, noise pollution, otherwise we are bound to perish to be replaced by a more sensible populace.
Madrice F. Strong (Chairman of the Earth Council and the President of the U.N. University for Peace and Secretary General of UNCED) says, that: “The risk we face from the mounting dangers to the environment and life support systems are far greater than the risks we face in conflicts with each other. The dangers of waiting threaten Planet Earth.”
The new millennium we have just entered will decide the fate of human species. The unprecedented increase in human population and in the scale and intensity of human activities over the past century have reached a point where they are impacting on the resource and life support systems on which human life and its well being depend. Our fate is literally in our own hands. The principal determinant to shape our future shall be in what we do or fail to do in managing the process in that direction.
Decisive shall be the first three decades-(the first one is already over)-of the century in setting the direction that will determine the survival or the demise of human life as we know it.
Although science and technology has made it possible to bring to all people of the earth – prosperity, well being and opportunities undreamed of by earlier generations, yet it has also produced a series of deepening environmental and social imbalance which are undermining the basic foundation for a sustainable future.
Changing Attitude to Nature
The negative impacts of the industrial revolution and the increased urbanization which arose from it, led to the development of a number of voluntary associations which were the precursors of the conservation movement and sustainable development which evolved from it.
The insight that humans inflict damage on themselves by damaging nature has become a basic premise of modern environmentalism which emerged as a major and influential movement during the second half of the 20th century.
Air and water pollution, urban blight, desecration of natural resources and undermining of human health and well-being became more widespread and visible. Attention was driven to this direction by great thinkers through their publications. These have helped faster growing public awareness and concern in Industrial countries which led to the decision by the United Nation General Assembly in 1969, on Sweden’s initiative, to hold United Nations Conference on the Human Environment.
Framework for Negotiation
The conference was held in Stockholm, Sweden, in June 1972. The first of the major Global conferences that have done so much to shape the agenda of the U.N. and the World Community during the past three decades.
It placed the environment issue firmly on the global agenda and provided the political impetus which led to the convening of several other global conferences on related issues: the: Population Conference in Bucharest in 1974 and Cairo in 1994, the Habitat Conference in Vancouver in 1976 and Istanbul in 1996, the Women’s Conference in Mexico city in 1975, Copenhagen in 1980, Nairobi in 1985 and Beijing in 1995 and the Social summit in Copenhagen in 1995. Each of these was patented on the model pioneered by the Stockholm conference most notably in providing for substantial participation on the part of civil society organizations.
The environment issue and the more comprehensive concept of sustainable development which evolved from it, provided a broad framework in which economic, social, population, gender and human settlements issues can be seen in their systemic relationship to each other and are the common thread which links the agendas and the results of each of these conference. In this sense Stockholm was their logical precursor.
The Stockholm Conference clearly brought out the differences between the position of developing and the industrial counties, but did not resolve then. Indeed, the issues of finance and the basis for sharing responsibilities and costs continue to be the principal sources of differences and controversy between the developing and developed countries.
These have become central and International negotiations on virtually every environment and sustainable development subjects notably in respect of the climate change and Biodiversity conventions.
The Stockholm conference led to a proliferation of new environmental initiatives and the creation of the United Nations Environmental programme (UNEP), head-quartered in Nairobi, Kenya, as well as national environmental ministries or agencies in most countries. However, despite progress in many areas it became evident by mid 1980’s that overall environment was deteriorating and the population and economic growth largely responsible for this was continuing. In response, the U.N. General Assembly established a World Commission for environment and Development under the Chairmanship of Norway’s Dr. Gro Harlum Brundlland. Its report “our common future” made the case for sustainable development as the only viable pathway to a secure and sustainable future for the human community.
A Historic Summit
Its recommendations led to the decision by the U.N. General Assembly in Dec. 1989 to hold the U.N. conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). To underscore the importance of the conference, it was decided that it should be held at the summit level and is now known as the Earth Summit.
As an event in itself the UNCED – the Earth Summit RIO-de-Janeiro in 1992 was clearly remarkable, indeed historic. Never before had so many of the world’s political leaders come together in one place and the fact that they came to consider the urgent question of our planets future, put these under an enormous internal spotlight. This was helped by the presence at RIO, both in the conference itself and the accompanying Global Forum, of an unprecedented number of people and organizations representing every sector of civil society, & more than double the number of media representatives that had ever covered a world conference.
The Earth Summit validated the concept of sustainable development which had been articulated by the Bund land commission, not as an end in itself, but as the indispensable means of achieving, in the 21st century, a civilization that is sustainable in economic and social as well as environmental terms.
The Earth Summit also made it clear that sustainability in physical terms can only be achieved through new dimensions of cooperation among the nations and peoples of our planet and most of all a new basis for relationships between rich and poor, both within and among nations.
Despite shortcomings, as the result of compromises made to reach consensus, the agreement reached at the earth summit represent the most comprehensive programme ever agreed to by governments for shaping the human future. The declaration of principles, agreed on at RIO reaffirmed and built on the Stockholm declaration. And the programme of Action, agenda 21 that the conference adopted, presents a detailed, “blueprint” of the measures required to affect the transition to sustainability. The conventions on climate change and Biodiversity, negotiated during preparations for the conference and opened for signatures at it, provided the basis for legal framework for international agreements on two of the most fundamental global environmental issues. In addition, the conference agreed on initiating a negotiating process, which has since produced a Convention on Desertification, an issue of critical importance to a number of developing countries, particularly the countries of sub Saharan Africa which are amongst the world’s poorest.
So far the record is mixed. There have been many positive achievements which demonstrate that the transition to sustainable development call for at RIO is possible. The conventions on climate change. Biodiversity & desertification have come into force, although progress towards agreement as the protocols necessary to give them “Teeth” has been disappointingly slow.
The Global environment facility, established as a result of the earth summit, as an innovative mechanism for financing the incremental costs of meeting these needs has been notably successful, but its resources are limited. Official Development Assistance has declined and deeply entrenched difference over intellectual property rights, in respect of the biological resources of developing countries has brought negotiations on a Biodiversity convention to a virtual standstill. While at the meeting of the parties to the climate convention in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, agreement was reached on a broad set of targets and timetables for a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, it now seems evident that most industrial countries will not meet these targets. And there is little sign at present of the degree of public support and political will that will be required to change this.
In the principal countries to which we most look for leadership- The U.S Canada, members of the European Union and Japan- These issues have moved down on the list of priorities. It is not easy to engage the attention of the elite & privileged of these societies on the need for radical changes in the status quo. With the stock markets and executive salaries at record levels, the status quo is all too comfortable for them.
Our environmental future and with it the future of our species will depend primarily on whether or not developing counties notably India, are able to make the transition to a sustainable development pathway. And this in turn, will depend on what the move industrialized countries do, both to reduce their own, disproportionate impacts on the environment leaving space, for developing countries to grow and by making available to developing countries the additional financial resources and technologies that are required to make the transition to sustainability.
If every one in the world were to adopt the current consumption patterns of the rich nations, an extra three planets like earth would be required to support them. This is clearly an untenable and unsustainable situation, especially when considered within the context of the evidence at the earth summit. Chapter 4 of Agenda 21. points out, the major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment is the unsustainable patterns of consumption and production, particularly in developed countries.
Potential for Conflict
The 21st century is likely to see the re-emergence of some basic, traditional issues with significant potential for conflicts access to water, food, energy, land, resources and livelihoods. The issue about which we have become dangerously complacent is food security.
Dr. M.S. Swaminathen humanitarian and eminent Indian scientist in his research made the case for a greatly strengthened, cooperative programme of research scientific and policy to ensure that the revolutionary advances in biotechnology, which will radically change traditional patterns of food production and the movement to accord new technologies intellectual property rights, benefit the poor and do not impose on them a new generation of risks and vulnerabilities.
The dichotomies which characterize our global society today are clearly manifest in India, Indians have been in the forefront, at home and abroad, of the technological revolution which is driving the new global economy and positioning India as one of its major players. Yet India continues to wrestle with the problems of deeply entrenched poverty and the challenges of ensuring that its millions of poor and underprivileged share equitably in the benefits of the new economy rather than becoming its victims. In the final analysis, this will be directly relevant to the priority India accords to caring for its own environment and natural capital, its land, air, water, forest, plant and animal life, and the role it plays in the international efforts to establish an affective system of cooperative management of these issues.
The system of cause and effect through which human policies and activities have their impacts on the process that are shaping our future is global in scale and complex in nature. And as significant dimensions of space and time often separate cause and effect, their real consequences are not always readily discernible. The principal challenge faced by our civilization in making the transition to the sustainable way of life is the management of this system. The processes which have given rise to the phenomenon we now call globalization transcends the traditional boundaries of nations, of sectors and disciplines. No nation, however powerful can go it alone, in realizing the principal benefits for its people and safeguarding them from the potential risks and vulnerabilities of globalization. The only real option is to develop a more effective system of managing these issues cooperatively.
The various sectors of civil society have organized themselves around a wide variety of interests and causes on which they have demonstrated, as they did at the W.T.O meeting in Seattle, to mobilize broad support and public opinion on issues about which people feel strongly.
The business community, notably transnational cooperation’s, which today command more economic power and influence than many nations must also have a place at the table when issues in which they are major actors are being resolved. Any effective system for cooperative management of these issues requires the participation and cooperation of these key actors as well.
However due to unwillingness of Governments to address the need of the fundamental restructuring of these institutions, the multilateral organizations, of which the U.N. and its specialized agencies are the centerpiece, are not geared to carry out the new generation of tasks that will be required of them as the instruments of cooperative Governance.
The reluctance of the nations that currently dominate the power structure of the global community to dilute their powers by a more effective and democratic enfranchisement of the developing country majority is clearly one of the principal reasons why strengthening the multilateral institutions has proven so difficult. This is a reflection of the great divide that still separated the more industrialized from the developing nations and the difficulties that have been encountered in reaching the agreements and affecting the cooperation necessary to move towards global sustainability.
The environment is the best illustration of the need to bring all key actors into any system of cooperative management of those issues which none can manage alone, if such a system is to be effective. The same is true of other issues that are critical to the common future of humanity. But not all issues need to be dealt with at the Global level and in many cases, the principal global function is to provide the framework, context and legal regime required to initiate actions which can best be taken at the local and regional levels. In fact the principle of solidarity calls for all issues to be dealt with at the level closest to the people concerned where they can be dealt with effectively.
An effective system of Governance at the global level require a legal and institutional framework for cooperative management of those issues which affect fundamentally the prospects for survival and well-being of the whole human community. This means extending into our international life the basic principles of law and justice which provide the foundations for the effective functioning of democratic national societies.
The sum total of the behavior of individuals the main source of human impact on the global environment of which the risks of climate change are a principal manifestation. People’s behavior is driven ultimately by their own principal values and priorities. The changes called for at the Earth Summit in RIO in 1992 were fundamental in nature and will not come quickly or easily. Individuals often believe that they can make little difference in the larger scheme of things. But indeed, without individual change there cannot be social change.
One of the greatest disappointments is the result of the Earth Summit was the inability to obtain agreement in an Earth charter to define a set of basic moral and ethical principles for the conduct of people of nations towards each other and the Earth as the basis for achieving a sustainable way of life on our planet Governments were simply not ready for it. But now the Earth Council has joined with many other organizations around the world to undertake this important piece of unfinished business from RIO through a global campaign designed to stimulate dialogue of a peoples Earth Charter. This is intended to be a compelling and authoritative voice of the world’s people which will ultimately have powerful and possessive influence on Government, hopefully leading to endorsement of the Earth Charter by the U.N.
The 21st century will be decisive for the human species for we are now, in a very real sense, trustees of our own future. The direction of human future will largely set in the 1st. decades of this century. For all the evidence of environmental degradation, social tension and inter-communal conflicts have occurred at levels of population and human activity that are a great deal less than they will be in the period ahead.
The risks we face in common from the mounting dangers to the environment, resource base and life support systems which all life in Earth depends are far greater than the risks we face or have faced in our conflicts with each other. A new paradigm of cooperative global governance is the only feasible basis on which we can manage these risks and realize the immense potential for progress and fulfillment for the entire human family which is within our reach.
The author is Retd. Chief Engineer.