Our Responsibility to Future Generations (25 September 1996)


Today the people and nations of the world are joined as never before in facing the greatest ever threat to their common security - the threat to the capacity of our planet to sustain life as we know it and the accompanying risks of economic, political and social breakdown.



Remarks by Maurice Strong at the  Plenary Session of 4th Annual World Bank Conference on Environmentally Sustainable Development


In reflecting this morning on our responsibility to future generations, we should surely begin by acknowledging our debt to the generations which have preceded us. For while they have left us a history marked by war, conflict and tragedy, they also bequeathed to us a rich and creative heritage of knowledge, culture and values which this has given rise to a new technological civilization that has conferred unprecedented levels of wealth and power on a privileged minority of our generation and ignited new hopes and expectations in the majority of others who are still denied its benefits. It opens up for the human community the prospect of a millennium of unparalleled progress and promise. And at the same time it exposes us to new risks and vulnerabilities which could be decisive for the human future.

The distinguishing characteristics of this civilization are that it is global in scale, systemic in nature and knowledge is its principal source of power.
Past civilizations have risen and fallen and their varying impacts on the totality of human experience have been important, but did not prevent its progression or threaten its demise. The vast increase in human numbers that has occurred in the past century and even greater acceleration in the scale and intensity of human activities have made us the primary agents of our own evolution. Human impacts on the environment, resource and life-support systems of our planet have reached a point at which they are affecting the complex set of balances on which the future of all life on earth depends. We have no option but to manage our own future as a species and in doing so to affect, perhaps decisively, the prospects for all life on Earth. It is an awesome responsibility, the implications of which we have not yet sufficiently understood and to an even lesser degree addressed. To do so will require fundamental changes in the ways in which we manage our relationships with nature and with each other.

Only a start

Fortunately, as this conference demonstrates, we do not start from zero. We have made a start, but only a start.

The emergence of the environment issue in the late 1960s focussed attention on the growing imbalances within our technological civilization that have arisen from the same processes of economic growth and behaviour that have produced such unprecedented levels of wealth and prosperity for industrialized societies. In the physical world these are manifested in risks of climate change and ozone depletion, air and water pollution, soil erosion, deforestation and degradation of other biological resources. In the social world they are manifested by poverty, hunger, inequality, injustice, racism and exploitation. It is surely clear that we cannot expect to be successful in managing the physical imbalances on which our future depends unless we can manage effectively the social imbalances which accompany and often drive them.

The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972 put these issues on the international agenda. It pointed out the need to reconcile our economic growth and behaviour with its environmental and social consequences. In 1987 the Brundtland Commission articulated this theme persuasively in elaborating the case for sustainable development -development that is sustainable in environmental and social as well as economic terms. This in tum prepared the way for the "Earth Summit" held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 which produced agreement on a program to effect the global transition to sustainable development, Agenda 21, as well as a Declaration of Principles and Framework Conventions on Climate Change and Biodiversity.

Next year, which marks the 25th anniversary of Stockholm, the 10th anniversary of the Brundtland Commission report and the 5th anniversary of the Earth Summit, there will be a major review of progress, and lack of it, by the United Nations General Assembly, preceded by a civil society assembly, Rio +5, in Rio de Janeiro. It will provide an important and much needed opportunity to revitalize and lend new impetus to the processes of managing the future we will bequeath to future generations. For that future will be shaped, perhaps decisively, by what we do, or fail to do, in this generation.

Environmental deterioration

Despite progress from which many have benefitted, environmental deterioration and social disparities continue while the practices which give rise to them persist. We are still moving along a pathway that is not sustainable and will lead to a future for those who follow us that will be at best unpromising and more likely tragic.

In the 20 years between the Stockholm conference and the Rio Earth Summit, 1.7 billion people were added to the world's population, equivalent to the total population of the planet at the beginning of this century. One and one half billion of these live in developing countries which are least able to support them. During the same period, world GOP increased by some 20 trillion dollars, but only 15% of this increase accrued to developing countries. Over 70% went to the already industrialized countries. This is a pathway that is clearly unsustainable.

The good news is that the doomsday scenario is not inevitable. It is still possible to effect the "change of course" called for at Rio on to the pathway to a future that will be more secure, equitable and sustainable. But inertia is a powerful force in human affairs, as it is in the physical world. Every year, every month, every day that we delay will make it more difficult to change course and lessen the odds of our doing so.

One of the most important things our generation must do in the interest of future generations is to curb our appetite for fossil fuels and develop a new energy economy in which fossil fuels playa diminishing role. This means a concentrated effort on the part of government and industry to develop alternative fuels and use fossil fuels more efficiently. There is an immense potential for energy efficiency in our industrialized societies, which continue to account for most greenhouse gas emissions. Industry studies have indicated that the United States could meet all its energy needs without major changes in lifestyle or quality of life with 50% or less of its current levels of energy use. Developing countries have a strong incentive to greater energy efficiency to reduce the amount of capital they require to meet their growing energy needs. And industrialized countries have a major incentive to assist them by ensuring their access to the latest state-of-the-art technologies and the incremental capital that is often required to incorporate them in projects involving energy generation and use.

Pathway to a sustainable future

The pathway to a sustainable future will require fundamental changes in our economic management, in our behaviour towards each other and in the attitudes which motivate that behaviour. It is why the Earth Council is joining with many other civil society organizations on the occasion of Rio +5 to engage broad participation by all sectors of society and articulation of a People's "Earth Charter" promulgating basic moral and ethical principles for the conduct of nations and people towards each other and the Earth. This would build on a piece of unfinished business at Rio where, you may recall, we had originally hoped to achieve agreement on an Earth Charter.

I am pleased that this conference is focussing on rural well-being. For despite the rapid urbanization of our civilization, most people continue to live in rural areas. And even as the balance continues to shift towards a more urbanized world, the future will still depend to a disproportionate extent on the conditions in the rural areas which will still account for by far the largest area of the Earth and most of the food production and natural resources essential to life. There can be no sustainable future for any of us if rural peoples do not participate fully in the transition to sustainable development -in its benefits as well as its responsibilities. The agenda of this conference brings out many of the specific areas in which rural well-being is directly linked to our broader future.

Technology and rural well-being

Fortunately, technology is becoming an ally in enhancing rural well-being. In enabling many of the attractions and services formally available only in cities to be accessible to rural peoples, it is removing some of the incentives which have driven migration to urban areas. But poverty, landlessness, population growth and the industrialization of agriculture constitute one of the most critical challenges we face in the period ahead.

Yet a rural world badly in need of re-generation is in many places caught in a spiral of degeneration -economically, socially and ecologically. How do we explain to children facing the lack of food, water and jobs, and often even the loss of family and community, that these are the consequences of unsustainable and inequitable development practices. And what can we do to induce political leaders and policy makers to change the system of incentives and penalties which induce these practices and provide positive incentives to sustainable development. How do international and national institutions help bridge the barriers amongst disciplines and sectors as well as institutional boundaries which mitigate against these issues being dealt with on a systemic basis?

For rural well-being is inextricably linked to what happens in the cities through a complex system of inter-acting relationships. Thus economic and social policies must foster greater parity between urban and rural peoples and actively promote rural well-being. It is in the interest of all that governments provide positive incentives to sustainable agricultural and resource management practices so that rural peoples may perform their indispensable role as primal  custodians of each nation's natural patrimony. For it will be principally at the level of people and communities that the version of a sustainable future will be translated into action.

Indeed, the most exciting developments are occurring today at the level of civil society where there has been a virtual explosion of activities and initiatives on the part of grass-roots organizations, citizen groups, business, scientists, architects, engineers, educators and religious leaders, to name but a few. One of the most promising means of effecting cooperative action at the level of "people" is the emergence, as a result of the Earth Summit, of National Councils for Sustainable Development, or equivalent bodies, in some 100 countries. Many of these include representatives of both government and civil society and all have as an important dimension of their mission establishing more effective consultative and cooperative links amongst these actors. Nowhere are these cooperative linkages more important than in the rural areas.

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 we have seen to date 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. And indeed technology has provided us with tools which will help us to do this. But, in practice, it will require cooperative management and behaviour on a scale and beyond anything we have yet experienced.

Resurgent parochialism

This may seem a remote and unrealistic prospect at a time when resurgent parochialism and competitive self-interest seem to be the dominant motivators of the behaviour of nations and people. But we must believe it can happen, because it must happen. And history has demonstrated that fundamental changes of course can and do occur when necessity compels them.

We cannot hide behind excuses that we don't know what to do. Despite the fact that the scientific evidence continues to be challenged, there is a broad consensus in the scientific community as to the nature of the risks we face, notably in respect of climate change, and what needs to be done to avert these risks. Rio's Agenda 21, despite some shortcomings, provides a comprehensive blueprint for the actions we need to take in various key sectors of human activity. The fact that it was agreed by virtually all the nations of the world, most of them represented there at the highest level, gives it a unique degree of political authority. But this, as we have seen, does not ensure its implementation. Unfortunately, the same is true of the Framework Conventions of Climate Change and Biodiversity agreed at Rio, and the Convention of Desertification to which Rio gave birth. These Rio agreements, together with other instruments like the Convention of Ozone Depletion and the Law of the Sea provide the basic foundations for the system of cooperative management needed to ensure our common future. We need to improve and build on them. But of even greater urgency is the need to give new impetus to implementing what has already been agreed. This requires the reform and strengthening of the multi-lateral organizations which are essential for the effective functioning of international cooperation in the management of these issues, notably the United Nations System and the Bretton Woods Institutions. At the World Bank, President Jim Wolfensohn has already initiated a major process of change and Secretary-General Boutros Ghali is leading a large-scale reform process at the United

The limiting factor in all of this is political will. Since Rio there has been a recession in political will which has translated into decline in Official Development Assistance, in the progress towards implementing and extending international agreements and in support for multi-lateral organizations. Indeed, the political support for international cooperation is less today than it was at San Francisco and Bretton Woods where the foundations were laid for the existing system of multi-lateral institutions. Yet the objective need for them is even greater. Must we wait until catastrophe and large-scale human suffering ignite the will to change when it may be too late and will certainly be a great deal more difficult and costly?

Our personal lifestyles

We can draw some encouragement from the signs that more and more people are realizing that the principles of sustainable development are fully compatible with both our economic interests and our personal lifestyles. Business leaders are recognizing that eco-efficiency as championed by Stephan Schidheiny and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, is the key to the new generation of industrial opportunity as well as to sustainable development. Consumers are becoming more discriminating in applying environmental criteria to their purchases of products and services. And the World Bank Group under President Jim Wolfensohn, is emerging as a leading champion of sustainable development. Not only has it, together with its affiliate, the Global Environment Facility, become the largest source of funding for environmental programs and projects, it is integrating the environmental and social dimension into all of its operations and launching an initiative to establish sustainable development guidelines for private investment. It is a special tribute to Ismail Serageldin and his associates that sustainable development has now become a central priority for the entire World Bank Group.

For me, and probably for most of you in this room, the consequences of our failure to make the transition to a sustainable way of life will have little impact on our own lives. But we are the ones who bear the responsibility for initiating the processes of change which will save future generations from these consequences. For the processes of environmental degradation and social decay are like a cancer spreading through the body of our civilization. By the time its symptoms become acute it will be too late to arrest them. It will take an act of enlightened, collective will on the part of our generation to launch the process of change while the diagnosis is still incomplete and the symptoms are tolerable. But surely our responsibility to future generations compels us to do so.

A new global partnership

In our personal lives, we all care for and try to provide for the future of our children and grandchildren. But today the individual measures we may each take are insufficient to ensure their future if we fail to ensure the integrity of the ecological, resource and social systems which sustain all life as we know it on Earth.

A new global partnership for security and sustain ability would not require world government or the homogenization of cultures and behaviour. Rather it would require agreement on the fundamental boundary conditions which all nations and people must respect to ensure that our collective behaviour does not transgress the thresholds of safety required to ensure our common survival and well-being. It will require a major extension and strengthening of the system of partnerships that is now emerging within civil society and new impetus to strengthening the multi-lateral institutions through which governments cooperate.

Throughout history, nations have demonstrated their willingness to devote the resources, establish the alliances and make the sacrifices required to confront risks to their security. Today the people and nations of the world are joined as never before in facing the greatest ever threat to their common security - the threat to the capacity of our planet to sustain life as we know it and the accompanying risks of economic, political and social breakdown. Only by forging a new global alliance for cooperative management, embracing north, south, east, west, rich and poor, rural and urban, can we avoid the risks and realize the immensely exciting potential that confronts us on the eve of a new millennium.