Environment Matters

I am persuaded that the 21st century will be decisive for the human species. All the evidence of environmental degradation we have seen to date has occurred at levels of population and human activity that are a good deal less than they will be in the 21st century.


Next year on the fifth anniversary of the Earth Summit, a special session of the United Nations General Assembly will review progress towards implementing the agreements reached there focussing particularly on Agenda 21. As well, the Rio+5 Assembly in Rio de Janeiro in March will bring together the perspectives of abroad cross section of civil society to contribute to this review process. It would, of course, after only five years be too early to pronounce final judgement on the ultimate results of the Earth Summit. After all, Rio called for fundamental changes in our economic life and in the behaviour of individuals, corporations and nations. And fundamental change does not come quickly or easily.

At this point it can be said that in many respects the response to Rio has been disappointing. Official development assistance has declined. Despite progress In some areas, environmental deterioration continues while the unsustainable practices which give rise to it persist.

However, there is also some good news. Although the prospects for new funding raised at Rio have not been fulfilled, developing countries have taken some important and promising steps to integrate sustainable development into their own national development policies and practices. Many have adopted national strategies based on Rio's Agenda 21. These include some large and rapidly developing countries like China and smaller countries like Costa Rica which has also joined with its neighbours in establishing e Central American Alliance for Sustainable Development.

But it is at the level of civil society that some: of the most positive and promising progress has been made - much of it at the grass roots and community levels. More than 1500 cities and towns around the world have adopted their own Agenda 21 and there has been a proliferation of initiatives by industry, and by professional, sectoral and other non-governmental organizations. National Councils for Sustainable Development or equivalent bodies have been established in more than 100 countries to foster consultation and collaboration among these civil society actors and between them and governments.

For me the single most important and encouraging development since Rio has been the emergence of the World Bank under President Jim Wolfensohn as the leading champion of sustainable development. Not only has the Bank become the single largest source of funding for environmental programs and projects: it is manifesting its commitment to sustainable development by integrating environmental and social dimensions into all of its projects and programs. The World Bank is actively promoting partnerships with other development funding agencies, with business, and with professional and other non-governmental organizations. It is playing a key role in dealing with global issues like climate change and regional issues like marine pollution and it is leading an initiative to establish sustainable development guidelines for private investment.

These and the many other activities that will be reported in "Environment Matters" clearly put the World Bank at the centre of the movement towards a more sustainable, secure and equitable way of life on our planet for which the agreements reached at the Earth Summit provide the basic blueprint. Intrinsic to this are some essential premises; that for development to be sustainable, environmental and social dimensions must be integrated fully into its planning and management processes; that the creation of wealth must be accompanied by the reduction of poverty so that there may be a more equitable sharing of the benefits of development; and that human activities must respect and maintain the integrity of the natural environmental, resource and life support systems on which all life on Earth depends.

I am persuaded that the 21st century will be decisive for the human species. All the evidence of environmental degradation we have seen to date has occurred at levels of population and human activity that are a good deal less than they will be in the 21st century. This confronts us with a challenge of unprecedented proportions; we, literally must manage our own future. Although science and technology provide us with new tools which vastly lever our capacities to do this, we will not find the solutions there. It will require the application of human ingenuity, political will and social discipline on a scale never yet achieved to ensure the kind of cooperative management on which our survival will depend.

Despite the current low level of support for international institutions, these organizations will inevitably be called upon to play an increasingly important role in facilitating and supporting the collaboration that is indispensable for dealing with the issues that bear on our common future - collaboration among governments and between government and civil society. No organization will be more essential to this process than the World Bank. And none is doing more to prepare itself for the new dimensions of service to its members and the world community which will be required of it as we move into the 21st century.