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March/April 2011
Vol. 36, No. 2

UN Rio+20: Global environmental governance

For a decade Maryknoll Sisters Mary Ann Duffy and Rae Ann O'Neill have worked in San Marcos, Guatemala among marginalized women. Among other projects, they work continuously to help women acquire cooking stoves that are fuel efficient, long lasting and environmentally friendly. Once the woman has her stove, she is free to engage in other activities that may contribute to improving her economic status. Each stove bears a price tag of US$100, a fortune for the women. Therefore, a major part of the work of the sisters is raising money to subsidize the cost of the stoves, a surprisingly difficult task.

This mission work demonstrates a broadening of moral understanding to include environmental sustainability as a vital consideration in all projects and programs. It is also emblematic of the difficulties encountered on a global scale in grasping the fundamental importance of being serious about changing development patterns in order to be in alignment with 21st century knowledge about the fragility of Earth's environment, including its natural resources.

In 1945, when the United Nations was created, uppermost in the minds of its architects was avoiding world war. The initial structures established were for promoting international peace and cooperation for social and economic development and for resolving humanitarian problems. By the mid 1960s it was apparent that economic and social development could not go forward in a way that guarantees future peace and prosperity without safeguarding the environment. Until then, the environment was taken for granted both in economic enterprises in the industrialized countries and development programs in the unindustrialized countries.

Therefore, in 1972 the United Nations created the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). This was the first formal step toward creating a system of global environmental governance. Since its inception, UNEP has had success in raising international awareness about the environment through excellent materials and events for information sharing. Over the years knowledge of the earth's limited carrying capacity has grown and the consequences of failure to observe limits have become apparent.

However, it has proved very difficult for nations to align their economic growth with information about the limited nature of the environment's carrying capacity. The concept of sustainability has barely achieved a toe hold in national policies and the environment is more degraded today than ever before. Furthermore, funds allocated for sustainable economic projects are entirely insufficient.

Dr. Maria Ivanova, a leader in global environmental governance, holds that what is required is a moral and ethical shift away from the right to personal well-being through quick profit through resource use to personal responsibility for the well-being of the planet and future generations of people. The former model is outmoded and ultimately cannot sustain life into the future. Following from this, it is no longer possible to deplete natural resources without accounting for them and adequately paying for their use. To do so is to fail in social justice.

In 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, the United Nations will hold an Earth Summit, commonly dubbed Rio+20, recalling the first Earth Summit in 1992. Basically, this summit will be about sustainability. It will deal with defining sustainable global economy and will move forward in the work of creating a global system of environmental governance. It is hoped that there will be broad public interest and participation in this summit. To this effect UNEP and an organization entitled the Stakeholder Forum are engaged in preliminary work soliciting wide interest from all branches of civil society.

The Stakeholder Forum provides a channel for anyone who is interested to become engaged in the preparation process and has made available two excellent background papers as "think pieces": Global Governance in the 21st Century: Rethinking the Environmental Pillar, by Dr. Maria Ivanova, and Sustainable Development Governance toward Rio+20: Framing the Debate, by Jan-Gustav Strandenaes.

The faith journey invites everyone to move step by step into the future where knowledge broadens and understanding deepens. A step in today's journey could be taking up the concept of sustainability and learning more about it. What kind of a world could be created if, as in San Marcos, Guatemala, sustainability were embraced as part of the mandate to care for the neighbor?

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