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The cooperative mode of our relationships (10 May 1997)


In the final analysis, the behaviour of people as well as the priority of societies respond to the deepest moral, ethical and spiritual values of people.

Commencement Address at Mount IDA College, Newton Centre, Massachusetts

It is a very special pleasure and privilege for me to join you at this important occasion in your lives and to extend my warm congratulations to all who are graduating today. I am deeply grateful for the honour being accorded to me and which establishes for me a very special tie with you all and with Mount Ida College.

This tie with Mount Ida College is especially meaningful for me in that it stems from Mount Ida's relationship with a great American, the late Bradford Morse, whose service to his nation and to humanity enriched the lives and enhanced the hopes and prospects of millions of people around the world. The example he set as leader and friend were a primary source of inspiration and support for me in my own public service career. And it is from this perspective that I am privileged to address you today.

Mount Ida is one of the finest colleges of its kind and I know that your studies and experiences here have prepared you well for tile individual pathways on which you will now embark to a future which will certainly be of unprecedented opportunity and challenge - for you as individuals and indeed for the entire human community. For I am convinced that the 21st century in which you will live most of your lives will be decisive for the future of the human species. And each of you can play an important part in shaping that future.

The 20th century has transformed the human condition and the human prospect more profoundly than in any other period since humans became the dominant species on our planet. The world's population has tripled. Yet the remarkable advances in knowledge and productivity made possible by our mastery of science and technology have increased the lifespans and improved living conditions for most of these people while enabling the privileged minority which lives primarily in our more developed societies to enjoy lifestyles and opportunities without precedent in human experience. But, pervasive poverty and suffering continue to afflict hundreds of millions of people and the gap between the beneficiaries of our technological civilization and its victims is widening. Despite the sobering experiences of the two most destructive wars of history, and an encouraging remission of the prospects for global nuclear war, we continue to possess the capacity for total mutual destruction. At the same time, we face more subtle and pervasive threats to our security and well-being from the same processes of industrialization and economic
growth that have been the source of our progress.

Not a pessimist

The increases in human numbers and in the scale and intensity of human activities which has occurred, principally in this century, have reached a point at which we are now impacting all the ecological systems and balances on which human life and well-being depend. And all the impacts we have seen to date have occurred at levels of population and human activity much less than there will be in the period ahead, The concentration during this century of economic growth, and its benefits, in the more mature industrialized countries, and population growth, with its attendant costs and pressures, in developing countries. have given rise to some serious and deepening imbalances which must be seen as ominous threats to our common future. But let me hasten to say that I am not a pessimist, for to function as a pessimist would be self-fulfilling, Human ingenuity and the remarkable advances in science and technology have given us the tools to manage the risks we face and to shape a more exciting and promising future.

But if we are to overcome these risks we must clearly acknowledge and face the realities of and manifest the will and determination required to deal with them. In this, denial and complacency are the main enemy. For the processes of environmental deterioration which arc undermining the earth's resource and life support systems arc like a cancer in the human body. It is at the early stages when the symptoms are less acute that life threatening risks can best be averted. By the time they have become more acute and painful. it may be too late to effect a cure. Some say, we must wait for more evidence. But in a matter which affects the fate of the Earth and its people, can we really afford to wait for the post mortem?

We have made notable progress in dealing with many of the most visible environmental problems in the more industrialized countries. 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.

New economic growth

Meanwhile, developing countries which continue to be home to most of the world's poverty and much of its conflict, are now producing most of the world's new economic growth driven by the global movement towards more open-market, competitive economies. Paradoxically, the economic growth of the developing countries also poses a major threat to the prospects for global environmental security and sustainability.

These issues have immense implications for all of us. For if the developing countries follow the same growth pathway taken by the more mature industrialized societies, they will have a growing impact on the larger global environmental risks we face that 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. China is now all the way to overtaking the United States as the principal contributor to the carbon dioxide emissions which are the primary source of the risks of climate change. Yet it would be neither fair nor feasible for us to deny developing countries their right to grow as they are still at the early stages of the economic. growth to which they all aspire. They would be far more influenced by our example than our exhortations. It is our societies, and principally the United States, that must now take the lead in making the transition to a mode of growth and style of life which will be sustainable in environmental and social as well as in economic terms. This is what we have now come to call "sustainable development".

Five years ago at the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, world leaders agreed all the need to make the global transition to sustainable development As we mark the fifth anniversary at the Earth Summit with a special session of the United Nations General Assembly to be held next month in New York, there is compelling evidence that sustainable development works - that efficiency in the use of energy and materials and in the prevention, and recycling of wastes is the key to a new generation of economic opportunity and competitiveness as well environmental improvement. What is true of business is also true in our individual lifestyles in which the quality of our lives and the sustainability of our way of life can be enhanced by a more caring and responsible attitude towards our own impacts on the environment.

Mounting dangers


The risks we face in common from the mounting dangers to the environment, resource base and life support systems on which all life on Earth depends arc far greater as we move into the 21st century than the risks we face or have faced in our conflicts with each other. All people and nations have in the past been willing to accord highest priority to the measures required for their own security. And they have demonstrated their ability to transcend their differences and rivalries to meet common threats. We must now give the same kind of priority to achieving environmental security in the 21st century through the transition to a sustainable way of life. This will take a major shift in the current political mind-set and in our individual and collective priorities.

It will entail a shift to a much more cooperative mode in our relationships with each other. within our own societies and internationally. In particular, it will require a new set of attitudes and policies towards cooperation with the developing countries which comprise some three-quarters of the world's nations and peoples. No longer can we as a minority retain the kind of dominance in managing our global civilization that we have had throughout this century. Necessity will compel such a shift eventually; the question is, can we really afford the cost and risks of waiting? This surely will be the principal challenge to the young generation.

The behaviour of people

Paradoxically, as the need to cooperate with other peoples and nations to deal with these issues which no nation, however powerful, can deal with alone, the multi-lateral institutions established following World War II to facilitate international cooperation are in need of change and revitalization. At the centre of this multi-lateral system is the United Nations and its various organizations and agencies which is now undergoing a major process of reform and transformation. This is not merely a response to the current financial pressures but to the necessity of ensuring that they will have the capacity, the support and the confidence they will require to meet the changing needs of the world community in the 21st century in which their services will be indispensable.

In the final analysis, the behaviour of people as well as the priority of societies 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.

This may seem somewhat idealistic, even unrealistic, in today's political climate in which the ethos of intensified competition and individual self interest is dominant. But we cannot - and must not - settle for less if we are to avoid the risks and realize the opportunities that confront us in the new millennium. This will now depend on your generation and I have confidence that you are well prepared for it. I envy you the exciting prospects and opportunities that face you in the dealing with this awesome set of challenges.