Environmental Stewardship And The New Parochialism (5 August 1995)

Our experience over the past quarter century has demonstrated that solutions are available, or can be found, when there is a clear political will for concerted action through a combination of policies, regulations and incentives. Even the most local of solutions must be applied in a global context.
Speech by Maurice Strong, Chairman, Ontario Hydro, on receipt of 21st Century Award "Environmental Stewardship And The New Parochialism" at the 1995 Phi Kappa Phi Triennial Convention and Symposium.

Let me first express to you my profound gratitude for the high honour. I understand you will bestow on me this evening as the first recipient of your 21st Century Award. I shall treasure it all the more in that it comes to me from this unique and historic society which for almost a century now has contributed so much to the encouragement and enhancement of superior scholarship and academic excellence. And the fact that I have been introduced so generously by Tom Malone, who has long been a good friend and a great source of inspiration and practical support, makes this occasion a uniquely important and memorable landmark in my life.

Few people stand alone in undertaking great works which come to be recognized as achievements. In no case could this be more true than of the achievement for which you honour me tonight. For they are the product of the dedicated efforts of a host of others around the world. including many of your own members, who have worked with, inspired and supported me over the years - and none more than Tom Malone. They are primarily responsible for anything, that I may be seen to have achieved and I accept this honour as a tribute to them.

The concept of stewardship has taken on a totally new dimension since, uniquely in our times, human numbers and the scale and intensity of human activities have reached the point at which we have become the primary agents of our own evolution. The explosion in knowledge, science and technology, particularly in the last century, have made us the most successful of all the species of life on earth. They have also set us on a pathway which is not sustainable and which threatens to make us the victims of our own success.

Ominous future threats

As we move into the 21st Century we have much to rejoice and to be proud of. Human ingenuity and the miracles wrought by our mastery of science and technology have produced a civilization beyond the wildest dreams of earlier generations and given us the tools with which to shape an even more exciting and promising future. But these same forces have also given rise to some serious and deepening imbalances which must be seen as ominous threats to that future.

These threats stem primarily from the concentration of economic growth, and its benefits, in the industrialized countries and population growth, with its attendant costs and pressures, in the developing countries. This is accentuating rich-poor differences both within and amongst nations and compounding the problems of managing cooperatively the risks to our common future arising from the growing pressures on the Earth's resource and life-support systems.

Let me quote a famous statesman on the subject:

"To waste and destroy our natural resources - to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness - will result in undermining for our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed."

Now, that statesman was Theodore Roosevelt. And his warning was given a century ago. He was talking about the need - and indeed the duty - of the industrialized world to embrace policies of sustainable economic development many, many decades before the term itself was invented. The world's population in his day was about one and a half billion. It is well over 5 billion, and in the past two decades alone the number of people on this planet has increased by an amount equal to the total in President Roosevelt's time. We are adding the equivalent of one New York City to the Earth every month.

Overwhelming evidence

There is now overwhelming evidence that the industrialized world cannot continue in its historical patterns of production and consumption - that it cannot forge ahead indefinitely on its path of waste in the use of the Earth's resources - either for its own sake or for the sake of the myriad others who have not yet experienced the luxury of waste.

In our times the scientific community has been foremost in pointing out these risks, notably through such bodies as ICSU's Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment, SCOPE under Tom Malone. Scientists have been joined by a growing number of other influential voices led by Swiss industrialist, Stephan Schmidheiny, in their report to the Earth Summit at Rio, made it clear that our current industrial civilization is not sustainable and called for a fundamental change of course. Inertia is as powerful a force in human affairs as it is in the physical world. The longer we delay initiating this change of course, the greater will be the human and economic cost of doing so. And the less the chances of our making the shift successfully. Indeed, I am persuaded that what we do, or fail to do, in the next two decades will determine, perhaps decisively, the prospects for the human future.

Developing a new sense of cooperative stewardship on a global scale will be the indispensable key to our success. For the forces that are shaping our future are global in scale and systemic in nature. But they are ultimately rooted in the values and the behaviour of individuals. This does not imply homogeneity. In our human, social and cultural systems, variety and diversity are as much a source of strength and resilience as they are in the ecosystems of the natural world. But cooperative stewardship requires acceptance by people of all nations, cultures, races and religions, of certain standards of responsibility and conduct which are essential to protect our common interests and ensure the survival and well-being of our species - to remain within the boundaries or "outer limits" on which this depends.

A new sense of urgency

The great religions and philosophers have long promulgated basic principles to guide and govern the relationship of people to God and to each other. And the United Nations in its Charter, in the Declaration on Human Rights and other instruments, has attempted to articulate such principles at the level of governments. With the emergence of the modem environmental movement, the need to cooperate in exercising stewardship of the environment, life-support and natural resource systems of our planet provided a new focus and new sense of urgency for acceptance of and agreement on the basic principles that this requires.

The Declaration of Stockholm agreed at the UN Conference on the Human Environment held there in 1972 was an important first step in this direction. The Declaration of Rio adopted at the Earth Summit in June 1992 moved this process a step further. But to the disappointment of many, including me, it failed to agree on an "Earth Charter" enshrining the fundamental values and principles on which our individual and collective stewardship for our common future must be based.

A new initiative has now been launched at the non-governmental level by the Earth Council and the International Green Cross, with the support of the Netherlands Government, to produce such an Earth Charter and present it to the United Nations in 1997, at the time of the fifth anniversary review by the United Nations General Assembly of the results of the Earth Summit, with the objective of having it accepted by governments by the year 2000. The process of producing and developing broad consensus around the Earth Charter is designed to be universally inclusive and participatory. building on the Earth Covenant recently promulgated by the World Conservation Union, as well as the many other manifestos, declarations and similar statements that have been produced by other organizations and groups.

New principles

Let me cite but a few of the principles which would need to be incorporated
in the Earth Charter:

  • The responsibility of people and nations towards the Earth and each other;
  • The holism and oneness of humankind and intrinsic value of life;
  • Unity, interdependence and the need to live within the limits of the Earth's carrying capacity;
  • The development of a community of life which attends the needs and respects the diversity of nations, peoples, cultures , religions, species and the integrity of the Earth;
  • The common interests of humanity transcend the rights of individual States and all strictly human conflicts.

What are the real prospects for achieving such a broad consensus and translating it into a sustained and effective commitment by governments to the practical policies and practices on which stewardship depends? Under current conditions there is a strong temptation to be pessimistic. Resurgent parochialism is concentrating people's attention and their priorities on their own immediate needs and concerns. The demise of the Cold War has reduced the risk of a global nuclear war and paved the way for a new era of cooperation amongst the world's great powers. This has facilitated such dramatic breakthroughs as the reunification of Germany, the installation of civil government in Cambodia, the establishment of a multi-racial democracy in South Africa and progress towards peace and reconciliation in the Middle East. But it has also taken the lid off many long-simmering ethnic and regional conflicts which are now taking such a tragic toll in places like the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Positive political basis

Paradoxically, the development of a more positive political basis for cooperation amongst the great powers has been accompanied by a diminishment in the will to commit resources to maintain international peace and security and to meet humanitarian and development needs in developing countries. As we mark the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations, support for multi-lateralism and the system of international cooperation of which the United Nations is the centrepiece is weaker now than at any point since the UN was created fifty years ago in the aftermath of World War II. And despite agreement on the establishment of a new global trading system to be administered through the World Trade Organization, progress towards economic and political union in Europe and the establishment of the North American Free Trade Agreement, there is a disturbing tendency towards protectionism and economic parochialism, particularly in this country.

I am persuaded that the 21st Century will be decisive for the human species. For all the evidences of environmental degradation, social tension and inter-communal conflict have occurred at levels of population and human activity that are a great deal less than they will be in the 21st Century. Theoretically one can make a case that these problems will be manageable. But in practice it will require that we extend to the global level the kind of social discipline and cooperative management that some of the more successful modem societies, like the Netherlands, Denmark and Switzerland, have effected. Prospects for this are not promising. At present the tendencies are in the opposite direction. Some of the poorer and least developed nation states of Africa, particularly those which had artificial boundaries imposed upon them, are already proving to be virtually ungovernable.

But we must not accept the case for pessimism. However persuasive it may be in intellectual terms we must continue to be operation ally optimistic. For to accept the case for the pessimism would make it self-fulfilling.

Precautionary principle

In no area is this more true than in respect of the environment. For the cause and effect system through which human activity interacts with the environment is complex in nature and global in scale. Cause and effect are often separated by significant dimensions of space and time. Like the advance of cancer in the human body, such risks as those of climate change may be irreversible by the time its consequences become so evident and acute that they can no longer be ignored. Our enlightened self interest surely dictates that we invoke the precautionary principle in dealing with these risks and base our actions on the best scientific evidence available. This is why we must be concerned by the ominous decline in the political will for sustained action to protect and improve the environment, particularly in this country, since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro just three years ago.

That historic meeting brought together more world leaders than had even before come together. It made clear that to develop and secure a sustainable mode of life on our planet, we must learn to manage the forces that are shaping our future in an integrated, systemic way. And it produced agreement on a set of principles, the Declaration of Rio, and a program of action to give effect to them, Agenda 21, which provide the basic framework for doing this.

Despite deficiencies, the Rio Agreements represent the most extensive and comprehensive program of action for the future of our planet ever agreed. by governments. And the fact that they were agreed - word by word - by virtually all of the nations of the world, most of them represented at the highest levels, provide them with a unique degree of political authority. But this does not assure their implementation. Three years after the Earth Summit, it is clearly too early to pronounce final judgement on its results.

Fundamental change

After all, the changes called for at Rio are fundamental in nature, and fundamental change does not come quickly or easily. But it must begin immediately if it is to produce the kind of sustainable, secure future to which we aspire, and which I believe is still possible to achieve.

Despite progress in a number of areas since Rio, it has to be said that there are all too few signs of a fundamental change of course, particularly at the level of governments. Although the first meeting of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention in Berlin recently did manage to patch together an agreement that will keep the process of implementation and further negotiation alive, it highlighted the continuing differences that exist, particularly as between industrialized and developing countries, and the degree to which political will has receded since Rio. The preoccupation with more immediate and pressing economic pressures and budgetary constraints at home and persistent international conflicts with their accompanying humanitarian needs, has diverted attention from the environment and sustainable development.

Even the progress that has been made in dealing with many of the most visible and acute environmental problems of the United States and other industrialized countries is fostering a disturbing sense of complacency. Environmental journalist Gregg Easterbrook in his recent book "A Moment on the Earth" strikes a responsive cord in many when he says that environmentalists have been too pessimistic. But he also concedes that the progress that has been made in the industrialized countries has come about largely as a result of government regulations and incentives and confirms the importance of these rather than supporting the arguments for their recision or relaxation.

Our own experience confirms the evidence of scientists and statisticians as to the progress made during the past twenty-five years on what you might call the "close in" environmental problems which have produced observable reductions in air and water pollution and improvements in the quality of life in our cities and in much of the countryside. But these welcome improvements at home provide no basis for complacency.

Most polluted environments

Developing countries are now experiencing these close-in environmental problems in even more acute form than we did. And the cities of the developing world are growing at rates beyond anything experienced in the industrialized countries - outstripping the capacity to provide even the most basic housing, infrastructure, health, education and social services to their exploding populations. Cities like Cairo, Manila, Bangkok, Calcutta and Mexico City are amongst the most polluted environments on earth. Many are faced with the prospect of environmental and social breakdown which would make them festering cauldrons of conflict, suffering and disease. Cooperative stewardship at the global level would not be effective in securing a sustainable future for the human community unless it is accompanied by cooperative stewardship at the level of our cities.

The United Nations Conference on Habitat, the last in the series of great UN conferences of this decade, to be held in Istanbul, Turkey, next year will focus world attention on these issues.

Developing countries are contributing more and more to the larger global risk such as those of climate change, ozone depletion, degradation of biological resources, loss and deterioration of arable lands. These are issues somewhat more removed from our own immediate experience and it is therefore more difficult to maintain the levels of public interest and commitment required to support the actions needed to deal with them. Yet these risks continue as the forces that drive them persist. It is sobering to remind ourselves that all of the environmental deterioration and risks that have arisen to date have occurred at levels of population and economic activity that are much less than they will be in the period ahead.

The current tendency to complacency is reinforced by mixed and often confusing information that people receive through the media. In some cases, this is based on objective scepticism and differences of opinion. But it is too often motivated by special interests or prejudices, exaggerating the degree of scientific uncertainty in respect, for example, of the evidence as to the risks of climate change. Contributing to this confusion is the widespread assumption that measures designed to foster environmental improvement through sustainable development run counter to job creation, economic opportunity and competitiveness. In fact, the evidence is, on the whole, to the contrary.

Impressive examples

During the past two decades, Japan has reduced domestic air and water pollution levels and increased the efficiency of energy and materials used in industrial production more than any other industrialized nation while maintaining, at least until the recent recession, high rates of economic growth and improving competitiveness. There are some impressive examples, too, in the experience of Germany where more people are now employed in environmental industries in the Ruhr Valley than in the steel industry.

There are, of course, good examples too in the United States and in my own country, Canada, but overall the rate of improvement is less. Nevertheless the United States still spends a greater proportion of its GNP on environmental protection than any other country.

The principal reason we cannot afford to be complacent is that the new round of growth in the world economy is taking place primarily in the rapidly developing countries of Asia and Latin America. A recent survey of the global economy by The Economist points out that if current growth patterns continue by the year 2020 nine of the fifteen largest economies in the world will be what we now call developing countries. On this basis, China would replace the United States as the largest single economy, India would replace Germany as the fourth largest and Indonesia would replace France as the fifth. It is always dangerous to extrapolate the future from current trends, and there will certainly be setbacks in the growth of developing countries, as we have seen recently in Mexico. But there is little doubt that The Economist will be correct about the general direction to which these indicators point.

Despite all of the talk about a new "world order", we in the west have not yet really begun to come to terms with the immense geo-political implications of the shift of economic power to the south. But of even greater importance in terms of the human future are the environmental implications of this shift.

Complacency and apathy

For if the developing countries follow the same growth pathway taken by the more mature industrialized countries, their impacts on the larger global environmental risks we face will undoubtedly move us beyond the thresholds of safety and sustainability.

Our environmental future will be largely determined by what happens in the developing world. Yet we who have largely created these risks, and benefitted most from the processes of industrialization that have given rise to them, can scarcely deny the right of developing countries to grow. Nor would it be fair or reasonable for us to act unilaterally in imposing constraints on their growth in the name of environment.

What, then, is the answer? To retreat into a domestic shell of complacency and apathy, however tempting, would be ultimately self-defeating. Surely we must continue to build on the environmental improvements we have effected during the past twenty-five years, with a greater emphasis on incentives which complement and reinforce regulation rather than replace it. As pointed out by the Business Council for Sustainable Development in its book "Changing Course", eco-efficiency is the key to sustainable development which meets both environmental and economic goals - efficiency in the use of energy and materials and in the prevention, disposal and recycling of wastes.

This will enable us to leave "space" for developing countries to grow and to set them an example that enables them to avoid the abuses and the costs of our own growth experience. For they will be much more influenced by our example, and by evidence that sustainable development is in their own interest, than by our exhortations.

Principal flows of financial resources

It is clearly in our own interest to ensure that they have both the incentives and the means to make the transition to sustainability. This means facilitating their access to the latest state-of-the-art technologies and to the additional capital they will need to employ them. It would be unrealistic to expect that this would come through increases in foreign aid in traditional terms. Foreign aid is in decline and private investment now accounts for the principal flows of financial resources to the rapidly developing countries.

Accordingly, we must develop the incentives and innovative financial mechanisms to ensure that private capital will be utilized for sustainable development. Otherwise it would be illusory to think that we can make the transition to sustainability provided for in Agenda 21.

In no field is this more important than energy. It is inconceivable that the massive amounts of new capital required by developing countries to meet their needs for electric power alone will be available if they attempt to do so on the basis of current wastefully low levels of energy efficiency. And given that electric power generating facilities have a long life, the environmental consequences as well as the economic and social costs of proceeding along the traditional pathway would be, for all practical purposes, irreversible.

Energy efficiency, as my own company, Ontario Hydro, is demonstrating, offers the best "no regrets" basis for improving economic performance as well as reducing emissions. It offers a win-win solution for both developing and industrialized countries. And it buys precious time to change the energy mix away from our over-dependence on fossil fuels. There are similar prospects in other sectors.

New debt

At a time when all government are experiencing limits on the amounts of new debt they can incur and new taxes than can levy, it would clearly be unrealistic to expect totally new funds to be made available for these purposes. Neither, is it necessary to do so. For governments everywhere continue to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on direct and indirect subsidies for activities which run counter to sustainable development - as for example to chemically intensive agriculture and to fossil fuels. These impose costly burdens on people as taxpayers and consumers as well as encouraging environmentally unsound and unsustainable practices. A reorientation and redeployment of these resources would provide all the resources required to effect the transition to sustainable development, at home and abroad, while improving economic efficiency.

And such new financial mechanisms as tradeable emission permits can utilize markets to channel funds available for environmental improvement to the places where they can be employed on the most cost-effective basis.

There is a major shift of economic power away from governments, of which the widespread movement towards privatization is but one manifestation. As we approach the limits of government, a wide variety of new actors are emerging within civil society who are becoming primary agents of change. This is certainly true in the field of environment and sustainable development. The most exciting and promising post-Rio developments are occurring outside of governments, where there has been a virtual explosion of activities and initiatives on the part of grass-roots organizations, citizen groups and other key sectors of society. It is encouraging that so many people returning from or inspired by Rio are determined to translate its basic themes into their own responses to Agenda 21. One of the most promising vehicles for this is the establishment of National Councils for Sustainable Development in almost 100 countries, bringing together representatives of governments with those of civil society to develop their own national and local "Agenda's 21".


Priorities vary with local circumstances and values but some local issues have major global implication. Issues of water supply and quality and food security are likely to move to the centre of the agenda in the period ahead. And medical scientists warn of the growing risk of emergence of new forms of disease and the resurgence of new strains of traditional communicable diseases, like tuberculosis and malaria, which had been largely eradicated. While these problems will arise primarily in developing countries, there is no way in which we can be isolated from them or their consequences. The recent confrontation between Canada and the European Union over depleting fish stocks is a portent of the growing potential for "eco-conflicts" over scarce resources.

Migration which has historically helped relieve the pressures of poverty, suffering and persecution, is no longer a practical alternative for most. Although the pressures for migration will continue to mount, the borders of the world are closing for all but the privileged few. I see signs of a "fortress north" mentality developing in industrialized countries. While welcoming the growing market developing countries offer for our goods and services, there is an increasing tendency to regard them more and more as sources of competition and threat. The Economist, hardly a left-leading publication, recently stated that, despite the fact that Marxism has been thoroughly discredited as a political system, one of Marx's principal tenets may yet be validated through a rich-poor class war.

In the technological civilization knowledge is power and a primary economic resource. But it is encouraging to know that knowledge does not diminish or deplete with use. Rather, the more widely it is disseminated the more it grows.

The old maxim that "knowledge is power" is now being accompanied by realization that "knowledge is money". While the increasing commercialisation of knowledge provides strong new incentives for the support of research and development, it also tends to limit the free-flow of knowledge and dialogue amongst scientists and researchers. This, and the growing drive to convert knowledge into proprietary intellectual property, could tend to reduce the total stock of knowledge and restrict access to the products of research and development for those who do not have the means to purchase it. This could especially disadvantage those. particularly in developing countries, whose needs is greatest. Yet it is in our common interest to ensure that they have access to the best state-of-the-art technologies and techniques so that in the course of their own development they do not add unnecessarily to the pressures on the earth's environment and resources.

Cooperative stewardship

While I am not one who believes that technology can be relied upon to fix our environmental problems, it clearly has an important contribution to make. In respect of such issues as CO2 emissions in which it is unlikely that consumer practices and preferences will shift sufficiently to effect the significant reductions in emissions required to alleviate risks of global warming, there should be a concerted effort to develop alternative technologies. Some promising prospects are already emerging.

The need for cooperative stewardship is particularly compelling when it comes to management of the "commons" beyond the jurisdiction of individual nations -- the oceans comprising over two-thirds of the area of the earth, the atmosphere and, to a significant degree, the Antarctic. Perhaps the most important "commons" of all is the global system of inter-acting cause and effect relationships on which the survival and well being of all life on earth ultimately depends. The care and management of this system requires a degree of cooperative stewardship beyond anything we have yet realized. The multi-lateral institutions, particularly those established since World War II provide the institutional framework for the system of governance required to exercise such stewardship. But they are the newest, least developed, least appreciated and least supported of all the levels in our hierarchy of governance.

At the global level, the United Nations and its specialized agencies and organizations, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, constitute the principal elements of this system. On the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of their establishment following World War II, there has been a plethora of studies and proposals for reforming and strengthening them. But the reality is that if we went back to the drawing board to renegotiate the terms of the United Nations Charter and the agreements establishing the constitutions of the other agencies and organizations of the system, it is unlikely under current conditions that agreement could be achieved on the kind of fundamental changes in their structures and mandates that these studies call for. The shortage is not of ideas, but of will.

Political will

I believe at this point the most important priority is to improve the management and performance of these institutions which would go a long way towards restoring confidence in them and building the political will required for fundamental change.

One such change that - is especially relevant to global stewardship is for transformation of the Trusteeship Council, one of the principal organs of the United Nations. Its original function was to act as trustee for former colonies in the process of becoming independent. As this role has now been almost entirely fulfilled, it would make sense to give the Trusteeship Council new life as the forum in which the nations of the world come together to exercise collectively their stewardship for the integrity of the environment, resource and life systems of aur planet and the commons beyond national jurisdiction.

I see signs of hope as well as reasons for continuing concern. Our experience over the past quarter century has demonstrated that solutions are available, or can be found, when there is a clear political will for concerted action through a combination of policies, regulations and incentives. Even the most local of solutions must be applied in a global context. This requires new dimensions of international cooperation, particularly as between developing and industrialized countries, as well as the redeveloping countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. No society today can escape the realities of global interdependence or the responsibilities of cooperative stewardship. The United States, more than any other country, has a primary interest in and responsibility for developing the ethos and supporting the institutions of stewardship that will be the key 10 our security and sustainability in the 21st Century.

The behaviour of people and nations is rooted in their deepest spiritual, moral and ethical values. The United States is a nation founded on a commitment to the highest values and has risen to its unprecedented status as world leader as the exemplar and champion of these values. This value-driven leadership is needed more than ever today. No nation can replace the United States in providing it. Yet there is a danger that the recent mood of uncertainty in this country, its disillusionment with the frustrations and failures of some of its international ventures, and its pre-occupation with its domestic concerns may give rise to a new isolationism and a retreat from its world leadership role.
This would be tragic for the entire world community.

But I am hopeful - indeed confident - that this great country will emerge from this period of introspection and self-doubt with a new will to lead the world into the era of cooperative stewardship, inspired by a re-vitalization of its own traditional values.

The is the vision of the future which must inspire all Americans as we move into the 21st Century.