We need new dimensions of cooperation (17 November 1996)



History has demonstrated that fundamental changes of course can and do occur when necessity compels them. The limiting factor is our will to change. This, I am convinced, will require a spiritual and moral revolution which moves the spiritual. moral and ethical dimensions of human experience back into the centre of our individual and collective lives.


Keynote address by Maurice Strong to the US National Conference of the Human Society, Washington DC



I am very pleased to be with you this morning and to have the opportunity of paying tribute to your Society, and to John Hoyt and his colleagues who lead it, for the enlightened and effective contribution you are making to the cause of sustainable development. For as you have recognized. sustainable development is the only viable pathway to a future in which the integrity and the quality of life on our planet can be secured. The Humane Society has been a pioneer in promulgating an ethic of respect for the other forms of life with which we share this Earth, what Albert Switzer called "reverence for life", and exemplifying this In a broad range of practical programs. And I commend you for being amongst the first to appreciate that the goals which originally motivated the creation of your Society cannot be achieved in the kind of complex, interdependent world in which we now live in isolation from the many other factors that are shaping the human future. Sustainable development has emerged as the basic framework within which each of us can bring our particular insights and expertise to bear on the processes by which our future is being determined. Your initiatives in establishing Earthkind, and your leadership in developing the ethical and moral underpinnings of sustainable development are important examples of this, for which I want to extend my profound congratulations and gratitude.

I am especially pleased that you have invited me to focus my remarks here this morning on the ethical and spiritual values of sustainable development. For in the final analysis, the establishment of a secure and sustainable mode of life on our planet will depend on the values which motivate our behaviour.

The vast increase in human numbers that has occurred in the past century, and the even greater acceleration in the scale and intensity of human activities have made us the primary agents of our own evolution and the custodians for all life on Earth. Human impacts on the environment, resource and life support systems of our planet have reached a point at which they can now be decisive in effecting the complex set of balances on which the future of all life on Earth depends. We therefore have no option but to manage our future as a species and, in doing so, to effect, perhaps decisively, the prospects for all life on Earth. It is 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.

Growing imbalances

The emergence of the environmental 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 the risk of climate change and ozone depletion, air and water pollution, soil erosion, destruction of plant and animal life. In the social world these risks are manifested by poverty, hunger, inequality, injustice, racial and ethnic conflict. 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 good news is that we have made a start in this direction; the bad news is that despite progress we are still moving along a pathway that is undermining the environment and life-support systems of our planet.

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 turn 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.

A new impetus

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 win 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.

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 GDP increased by some 20 trillion dollars, but only 15 per cent of this increase accrued to developing countries. Over 70 per cent went to the already industrialized countries. 1t is a pathway that is clearly unsustainable.

Despite our preoccupation with debt and deficits, it is useful to remind ourselves that we live in the wealthiest civilization in human history and one in which wealth in material terms continues to be created at an unprecedented rate. Yet never has the gap between rich and poor been greater, even in our industrialized societies. It surely must be clear that those who share the risks to which our technological civilization has given rise and whose cooperation is essential to avert these risks, must also participate equitably in the benefits it provides. The dire and debilitating poverty which continue to hold some one billion people in a bondage of hunger, malnutrition, disease and homelessness is surely an affront to the moral basis of our civilization as well as to its sustainability.

Doomsday scenario

Nevertheless, I am persuaded 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.

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 builds on a piece of unfinished business at Rio where we had originally hoped to achieve agreement on an Earth Charter.

The Humane Society and its affiliate, Earthkind, have made an important contribution to this process, particularly through your support of the symposium in the Hague, Netherlands, in May 1994, at which it was launched. We very much appreciate this and look forward to your continued cooperation in the worldwide effort to produce an Earth Charter which is truly the product of participation and dialogue by people from all sectors of our global society and will be rooted in their commitment to the precepts it promulgates and can be presented to the United Nations by the year 2000.

The spiritual dimension

Values, ethics and moral principles provides the basic underpinnings of our societies and the roots from which our attitudes and behaviour spring. They are the secular expressions of our spirituality. I am personally persuaded that it is our innate spiritual nature which distinguishes the human species from other forms of life. Even those who deny God and organized religion cannot separate themselves from the spiritual dimension of their being - spiritual in the sense of our relationship to the ultimate source of life itself, whatever we may believe it to be. We have emerged as a product of the cosmic forces that shape our universe and are the highest manifestation we know of these forces. This reality endows all humankind with a unity that transcends the many differences that exist in the ways in which we interpret our origins and purposes. Diversity and variety can be a source of strength in the spiritual realm as it is in the physical world. But only if it is accompanied by tolerance and respect for the beliefs and practices of others and a commitment to a common set of values and principles which are essential to the survival and well being of the entire human community. These include first and foremost a respect for life itself and a commitment to the behaviour and practices which will ensure its sustainability and its qualities. We must exercise, individually and cooperatively, a high degree of responsible stewardship over the precious resources of the Earth which sustain and nourish its life. Caring for and sharing with each other can no longer be seen as pious ideals, divorced from reality, but as the indispensable requirements for a secure and sustainable future.

It is ironic that the principal threats to the future of life on Earth derive from the very same processes that have made our contemporary civilization the most successful and powerful ever and offer the prospect of an even more exciting and promising future. But in the last decades of this millennium we have become aware of the degree to which we are impinging on and undermining the very conditions necessary to sustain life as we know it. We have lost our innocence and face the very real prospects that future generations may become the victims of our success. Or more particularly of our failure to manage effectively and responsibly the forces which science and technology have placed at our command.

Industrial opportunity

When we fail to discipline our appetite for fossil fuels in the face of evidence that this could dramatically, and perhaps disastrously, affect the Earth climate: when we continue to destroy the plant and animal life and the other biological resources: when we continue to poison the atmosphere, the land and the waters of our planet with toxic and hazardous substances, when we continue to indulge in wasteful and destructive patterns of production and consumption we are literally robbing our children and the generations who follow them of their future. This is all the more irresponsible and immoral in that it is unnecessary. There have been enough good examples of success today to make it clear that it is possible to move to a sustainable way of life that is fully compatible with both our economic interest and our personal lifestyles. Business leaders are recognizing that eco-efficiency as championed by Stephan Schmidheiny and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, IS the key to sustainable development as well as to a new generation of industrial opportunity. Consumers are becoming more discriminating in applying environmental criteria to their purchases of products and services. And through the political process people are making it clear that they expect higher standards of environmental responsibility from their leaders.

For me, and probably for most of you, 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 in which we are now caught up 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 this process of change while the diagnosis is still incomplete and the symptoms tolerable. But surely our responsibility to future generations compels us to do this.

Unprecedented scale

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 take to do this are not sufficient in themselves to ensure their future. We need new dimensions of cooperation across the boundaries of nations, disciplines, sectors and institutions to ensure the integrity of the ecological, resource and social systems which sustain life on Earth.

I am persuaded that the 21st century will be decisive for the human species and that of many of the other forms of life with which we share the Earth. 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, ill practice, it will require cooperative management and behaviour on a scale beyond anything we have yet experienced.

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. The limiting factor is our will to change. This, I am convinced, will require a spiritual and moral revolution which moves the spiritual. moral and ethical dimensions of human experience back into the centre of our individual and collective lives. I commend you for your leadership in doing this. For I am convinced that it is the only way in which we can avoid the risks and realize the great new opportunities that confront us as we move into the new millennium.