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July-August 2010
Vol. 35, No. 4

UN: Voices for sustainability

One of the most important understandings of the modern period is that Earth’s resources are limited. Petroleum is a case in point: A century ago it was an unquestioned assumption that oil was virtually limitless, sparking the creation of a way of life dependent on it. Now, the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico has become emblematic of social and economic development that was ultimately shortsighted and unsustainable. This is problematic not only for the present but for future generations of people who may inherit deeply flawed social and economic systems as well as a degraded environment and natural resources that have been used up. It ought not to be forgotten that in the past there were voices offering an alternative vision. Today, as well, there are strong voices that articulate the demand for development sustainability, lest future generations be consigned to increasing hardship on a depleted planet.

The United Nations has taken the lead in shaping discourse around limited resources and environmental degradation for almost 40 years. In 1972, the UN held an international conference on Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden. This conference opened a lasting debate around the concept of Global Environmental Governance (GEG).

In 1983, the UN established the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). WCED produced the broad political concept of sustainable development: development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The integration of social, economic and environmental sustainability is fundamental to this definition. It was the unequivocal opinion of the WCED that civil society would have to be deeply involved in creating global sustainable development. Governments alone could not possibly achieve it.

In 1992 the UN held the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. The conference accepted the definition of sustainable development articulated by the WCED and produced Agenda 21, which is a blueprint for implementing sustainable development in the 21st century. The summit called on the UN to develop a structure, specifically including civil society, to encompass the work of creating sustainable development policy. In addition, the summit issued a call for the creation of an Earth Charter through a process of broad, global consultation. Lastly the summit created the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in order to create a global agreement on limiting greenhouse gases.

The importance of the Earth Summit cannot be exaggerated. The UN, with the collaboration of civil society, has systematically implemented each of the points of the summit’s mandate. While it is clear that global development has continued on an unsustainable trajectory, a different vision began to be articulated and, over the years, has become sharpened and strengthened. The Earth Charter, conceptualized and written with extensive international public participation, is a profoundly inspirational document; it is a high water marker for the expression of universal moral and ethical principles shaped by engagement with contemporary knowledge, experience and insight.

Another voice offered by the UN is the 2005 document on the Precautionary Principle. This is the continuation of serious and diligent work to create an ethical framework for the application of scientific and technological work.

Due to the complex and interconnected nature of the issues of unsustainability before the global community today, the UN has called for a new Earth Summit, dubbed Rio+20, to be held in 2012. The seminal work of the new summit will be to define Green Economy in the light of sustainability. In addition, it is expected that the summit will adopt alleviation of poverty as the measure for evaluating sustainable development systems, policies and practices. (To be involved in the Rio+20 preparations go to

Lastly, the new president of the UN General Assembly, Joseph Deiss, in outlining the top priorities of his tenure, included the environment and environmental governance, and called for increased efforts towards the achievement of a green economy.

These are all voices that summon the human community to a noble vision. It has been said that the noblest thing a person can do is act in such a way that future persons will benefit from one’s actions of today. This applies to planting a tree and to protecting the environment against pollution and toxicity. It also applies to using natural resources in a way that is calculated to guarantee enough for others of the future.

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