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Designing a Sustainable Future (24 August 1997)



After a long period of evolution, human beings have emerged as the dominant species on our planet. But we are a species out of control.

by Maurice F. Strong, Chairman, Earth Council, The Human Village Congress Toronto


I very much appreciate the opportunity you have given me today of sharing my views with you on the vital role that design plays in helping to shape a new, more humane, more secure, and more sustainable world. Planning for a future society which IS humane, liveable, and of course, sustainable, is the greatest design task ever to face humankind.

Your host for this event, the Design Exchange, is at the forefront in Canada in ensuring that creative and innovative Canadian design solutions are disseminated and recognized around the world. In doing so, the Design Exchange is playing a catalytic role in encouraging excellence in design, and in humankind's future. I am pleased to note that the Design Exchange approaches design at all levels of society, including support for a community garden here in Toronto in which my own organization, the Earth Council, is involved. I am also pleased to note that Mr. Peter Munk, Chairman of Barrick Gold Corporation, is Honourary Chair of the Design Exchange. Barrick aggressively supports environmental responsibility wherever it operates. As a result, I nominated Barrick for the coveted "Earth Award" in 1993.

I have been very privileged, in the roles I played in recent times, to be able to look at many issues from a global perspective and I am deeply convinced that we are in the midst of a profound civilizational change. The depth and breadth of this change holds immense significance for the way we govern ourselves , the way we conduct our businesses and the many other ways in which we go about spending our allotted time on this planet. In fact, I am convinced that we are at a crossroads in the human experience. As we move into the 21st century, human ingenuity and the miracles wrought by our accomplishments in 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 promising and exciting future. We are literally now in command of our own evolution. What we do or fail to do will, in fact, determine our future. And I believe that future will be largely shaped in the next decade or so.

Structural crisis

Our planet's political, social, economic and ecological systems are experiencing a structural crisis which cannot be solved without radical re-thinking of our approach to each other, to technology, and to the global development model as a whole . This process of re-thinking -- "redesigning" if you will, began 25 years ago at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in June 1972. The Stockholm Conference put the environment issue on the international agenda. It led to a proliferation of new environmental initiatives including the creation of the United Nations Environment Program. However, despite progress in many areas, it became evident by the mid-1980s that, overall, the environment was still deteriorating and the economic behaviour largely responsible for this was continuing. In response, the United Nations General Assembly established the World Commission for Environment and Development under the Chairmanship of Norway's Gro Harlem Brundtland, one of the world community's most enlightened and respected leaders. Its report, "Our Common Future" made the case for sustainable development as the only viable pathway to a secure and hopeful future for the human community. Its recommendations led to a decision by the UN General Assembly in December 1989 to hold a new conference, the UN Conference on Environment and Development, on the 20th anniversary of the Stockholm conference. To underscore the importance of the conference it was decided that it should be held at the "Summit" level and it is now known universally as "The Earth Summit".

The Earth Summit was an exercise in design --an ambitious one to be sure - providing a framework for the design of the future of the entire human community in the 21st century. 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 planet's future put these issues under an enormous international spotlight. This was helped by the presence in Rio de Janeiro, both in the conference itself and the accompanying "Global Forum", of an unprecedented number of people and organizations representing every sector of civil society, and more than double the number of media representatives than had ever covered a world conference.

People pressure

This "people-pressure" helped to move governments to agree on a set of principles, the Declaration of Rio, and a comprehensive program of action to give effect to these principles, Agenda 21.

Despite shortcomings, the agreements reached at Rio represent the most comprehensive program ever agreed by government for the shaping of the human future . And the fact that they were agreed by virtually all of the governments of the world, most of them represented by their head of government, gives them a high degree of political authority. But whether it will be seen as a historic turning point, or a tragic lost, and perhaps last opportunity, remains to be seen. It is still a little too early to tell what the ultimate results will be.

So far the record is mixed at best. To some degree this is understandable. The changes called for at Rio were fundamental in nature and will not come quickly or easily. Our ecological footprint is a case in point. Overall, humanity's consumption continues to be greater than what nature can regenerate on a continuous basis. In a recent report, the Earth Council determined that if every nation consumed resources at the same level as Canada, we would need three more planets like Earth to provide the necessary resources and waste assimilation. as Canada, we would need three more planets like Earth to provide the necessary resources and waste assimilation.

The globalization of capitalism is producing a new and universalizing culture symbolized by CNN, brand name consumer products like Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Levis, pop music, shopping malls, international airports, hotel chains and conferences. To the privileged minority which who participate fully in this culture it provides an exciting and expanding range of new opportunities and experiences. But for the majority, particularly in the non-western world who live on its margins and feed on its crumbs, it is often seen as alien and intimidating. Caught in the dynamics of modernization of which they are more victims than beneficiaries, it is no wonder that many react with anxiety and rejection, seeking refuge and identity in their own traditional values and cultures. The clash between modernism and fundamentalism has deeply rooted secular as well as religious dimensions and is producing a new generation of conflict and turbulence.

Dominant ethos

Today, the dominant ethos is that of individual self-interest. And I am sure that everyone here would share my deep belief that individual rights and freedoms constitute the fundamental foundations of our society. But in order to be able to exercise these rights and freedoms, they must be accompanied by a high sense of responsibility to each other and to future generations. It is this sense of responsibility that must be refurbished as many of the actions to ensure a secure and sustainable future for those who follow us on this planet require new dimensions of cooperation with others, both at home and internationally. This is particularly true in the field of environment.

The evidence produced for the Earth Summit made it clear that what is needed is fundamental change in the dynamics and direction of our economic life. This basic change of course has not occurred and until it does we will, despite our rhetoric and good intentions, continue to move in a direction that is simply not sustainable.

The most exciting and promising post-Rio developments are occurring outside of governments. Just as the real leadership at Rio came from people, from non-governmental organization and citizen groups, from thinkers, from the scientists and the planners -- the "designers", if you will -- it is these people today who are taking the lead in the follow-up to Rio.

Tide of enthusiasm

I have been much heartened recently by the rising tide of enthusiasm for Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert's Natural Step program, which is supported by many companies, including lKEA in Sweden. The basic thinking of the Natural Step program has been summarized in the following four systems conditions for achieving an ecologically sustainable society:

 

  1. Nature cannot withstand a systematic build-up of dispersed matter mined from the Earth's crust.
  2. Nature cannot withstand a systematic build-up of substances produced by humans.
  3. Nature cannot withstand a systematic deterioration of its capacity for renewal.
  4. Therefore, if we want life to go on, there must be a fair and efficient use of resources.



The Natural Step is a vital and vibrant vehicle for transforming corporate culture, and for implanting the tenets of sustainable development in our society in the products and processes which we encounter in our everyday lives. This morning, you were privileged to hear Paul Hawken speak; he has played a key role in bringing the Natural Step program to the United States, and in encouraging its development in Canada and .. other countries around the world.

In cooperation with the Earth Council, engineers and architects through their international bodies, have committed their professions to cooperative programs designed to support implementation of Agenda 21 in their sectors. The World Tourism and Travel Council, representing what is now the world's largest single industry, and the International Road Transport Union representing the transport sector which is so important in both environmental and economic terms, have both developed their own versions of Agenda 21 for their industries, and other sectors are taking similar action.

International Road Transport Union representing the transport sector which is so important in both environmental and economic terms, have both developed their own versions of Agenda 21 for their industries, and other sectors are taking similar action.

Some 1800 cities and towns around the world have adopted their own local Agenda 21 under the aegis of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, again with the support and cooperation of the Earth Council. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development has taken an enlightened lead in stimulating the commitment to sustainable development on the part of its membership of more than 120 multi-national corporations. It has also developed several national and regional counterparts. Since its initial report to the Earth Summit entitled "Changing Course", the World Business Council for Sustainable Development has produced two books; one of these, "Financing Change", Makes a strong and compelling case for the use of financial markets to finance sustainable development. And, more recently, "Signals of Change" documented specific examples of business progress towards sustainable development based on its eco-efficiency concept. This is a management approach designed to produce greater efficiency in the use of energy, materials and services and in the prevention, disposal, and recycling of wastes so as to create value for both the companies concerned and society. The WBCSD is also promoting the use of life-cycle analysis to reduce the environmental impacts of products and production processes and is promoting the development of a global network of business organizations committed to sustainable development. And it is helping its member companies to identify and pursue new business and investment opportunities based on the application of sustainable development principles.

Signals of change

Among the specific examples documented in "Signals of Change" are:

  • The successful experience of 3M through which Pollution Prevention Pays (PPP) program first introduced in 1975 has prevented more than 1.4 billion pounds of r~leases to the environment while saving the company more than $750 million.
  • The initiation by Sony Corporation of its "Green Plus" project which has resulted in the design of a new television set series which uses 14% less material as compared to the previous design and has a goal to make all Sony products environmentally friendly by the end of the year 2000.
  • Adoption by Fiat Auto of a policy of reducing pollution and other environmental impacts at its own plants and requiring that its suppliers accept high environmental standards.
  • Adoption by the chemical industry of its Responsible Care program to improve the environmental performance of the industry. The US chemical industry alone has reduced emissions of toxic chemicals by more than 60% in the past six years while production grew by 20 per cent.


Representatives of the WBCSD and other key civil society sectors and constituencies gathered in March of this year for the Rio+5 Forum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Earth Council convened this forum so that participants could share their experiences and renew their commitment to implementing Rio's Agenda 21.

The Rio + 5 Forum was accompanied by the first meeting of the Earth Charter Commission which produced a benchmark draft of a People's Earth Charter promulgating basic moral and ethical principles for the conduct of people towards each other and the Earth. This process builds on a piece of unfinished business from the Earth Summit where we were unable to achieve our original aspirations for agreement on an Earth Charter. Values, ethics, and moral principles provide the basic underpinnings of our societies and the underlying motivation for our attitudes and behaviour. Thus, acceptance of these principles as set out in the Earth Charter would provide the moral and ethical foundations for the transition to a sustainable way of life on our planet.

Complex of forces

What, then, is the answer to the bewildering complex of forces that are shaping our future? The sobering fact is that the answer lies with us. After a long period of evolution, human beings have emerged as the dominant species on our planet. But we are a species out of control. Human numbers and the scale and intensity of human activity have reached the point at which we are now affecting, perhaps decisively, basic conditions and balances on which our life and well-being depend. We have become the principal determinants of our own evolution and we have no option but to manage the forces that are shaping our future, or we will surely be engulfed by them. It is an awesome responsibility and one for which we are clearly not yet ready.

In the final analysis, the behaviour of individuals as well as the priorities of society respond to the deepest moral, ethical and spiritual values of people. I am convinced that the radical changes now occurring in our society are producing a historic convergence between our traditional perceptions of relationships, between the practical aspects of human life and its moral and spiritual dimensions. It has too often been assumed in the past that there is an essential dichotomy between the "real world" of practical affairs and the more ethereal, ideal world of morals and spirit.

Concepts of mutual respect, caring for, sharing with and cooperating with our brothers and sisters both at home and internationally can no longer be seen as mere pious ideals divorced from reality, but as indispensable prerequisites for our common survival and well-being. As designers, it is on these tenets that you can participate in building, through your products and processes, a more promising and sustainable future.