Global Sustainability Newsletter

Issue 17 - October 2012

AN EMERGING NEW ROLE FOR GLOBAL SOCIETY

In the last twenty years, since the first Rio de Janeiro conference (The Earth Summit) in 1992, the terms such as global sustainability, long-term survival, planet's carrying capacity, ecological footprint, have become important working concepts in the scientific community. Today, twenty years after that conference, we must concede that despite the best efforts by the United Nations Environment Programme, many scientific community groups, many government agencies, NGOs and many individuals, global sustainability is far from being properly addressed. And with growing desperation, we all realise that we cannot afford to let the situation to deteriorate even further. Unfortunately so far there have been no signs of significant changes on the world political scene. There are a number of reasons why the sustainability problem has not been addressed properly so far. Some of the most important reasons are discussed below.

From national to global perspective

Humanity has been developing for millennia from tribal groups, through the city-states (as in ancient Greece), small principalities and kingdoms to nations. So far, the focus of people's activities has been largely limited by the size of the enterprise they were involved in. It is not surprising then that today the focus of people's activities continue to be local. In societal transformational time-frame, the "global" perspective has just been born.

The transition to global outlook is slowly taking off, but the contemporary outlook of the entire planetary citizenry, whether local, state and national is still very much a nineteenth or twentieth century model of thinking, not geared towards dealing with global problems (global - as effecting the entire planet, the plant and animal kingdoms, and total human population). On the ground, in local, state and national governments, there are no global sustainability agendas, policies or legislations. Some planetary problems are being driven by powerful personalities (like Al Gore - climate change) or by environmental disasters (like droughts, heat waves or floods), but there is no systematic approach to these issues. All levels of government are driven by the same issues they had to address 50 or 100 years ago; no one has time or mandate to look at these new emerging issues like global sustainability.

Without going deeply into the United Nations way of handling this issue, their twenty years of work between Rio Summit in 1992 and Rio+20 has produced some important results1,2, but this effort isn't even close to the progress we really need. Currently, the United Nations work on completing the Millennium Development Goals and the plan is that in 2015 a new set of development goals will be introduced and these goals will be called Sustainable Development Goals. Besides the United Nations, there is some work happening on various levels amongst international community3, and all these efforts are very important and they do contribute to the final outcome. But we need more progress to happen during our lifetime and just waiting for this to happen will not produce the desired results.

Complexity of issues

One of the reasons for the slow rate of progress so far is the fact that human beings have not dealt with problems like this before and they have not been taught and educated about all the sustainability matters we are dealing with. We have to make our way through the maze of enormous amounts of new problems - problems we never thought of or encountered before. Additionally to the depth of those issues, there come, of course, the massive diversity of problems (ecosystems, climate change, biodiversity, economy, energy, poverty, inequalities, food and agriculture - to list a few). We are being flooded by the never ending streams of problems, which are coming at us very fast. We found ourselves in a situation where we need all the creativity and dedication we can muster from everyone. Consequently, we must accept that to address this situation we require a collective effort; we need the contribution of all our different skills and talents. Never before was there a better time to deeply comprehend the need for cooperation, not competition - but working together, because if we lose this battle - we all will be the losers.

Legislation and policing

Historically, most areas of international relations have been operating on the basis of bilateral agreements or just good will between the nations. Up until now there has been no proposal for an introduction of global sustainability legislation. It was impossible so far to even create an international Environmental Protection Agency, as we live in a world where the national interests rule the global agenda, and powerful nations do not wish anyone to interfere with their economic progress. At the same time, the international institutions, like the UN, are too weak to change this status quo. The same rationale is true for the absence of real efforts relating to global sustainability. There is an urgent need for a legislative support if we want people at various levels of government and management to take seriously their responsibilities toward global sustainability.

Global sustainability institutions

Hand in hand with legislative changes should go the efforts of creating an entire new institutional network4. Global sustainability should be mandated at every level of human activity, and there should be the mechanisms of control, prevention and management, similar to environmental management.

Some people may argue that environmental management should be sufficient for future global ecological sustainability. Still, we need to understand more about the workings of natural laws, how to live sustainably and in harmony with nature's laws, so that we could become less destructive to ourselves. The optimal solution would appear to be making the environmental management, as we have it organised today, a subset of global sustainability initiatives.

Scientific data

Any effort in the global sustainability strategy requires scientific data. Where ever we ask questions about any global sustainability issue, the problem of lack of scientific data surfaces very quickly. Up until today we have not created any scientific organisation for the collection, analysis and reporting of global sustainability data. The work that is happening at present is a result of cooperation of various universities and other scientific bodies, which collect some information for other purposes and incidentally, the same data can be used (to a certain degree) for the analysis of global trends. However we look at the results of the international scientific efforts in analysing the global trends we must concede that this effort (in the current format) has been and will always be incomplete if we wanted to assess the long-term global sustainability management efforts.

The UN, together with some international institutes, like World Resources Institute and others, has been working on the scope of issues to be investigated. And there is still work to be done in order to understand the nature of current problems we face. Nevertheless, a lack of scientific data is a different issue and could and should be addressed in a parallel effort to finalising the scope of the actual issues we need to address - we already know many definite problems we are facing. When we are in a possession of scientific data, we have better chances for PREVENTION of serious problems, and not continue to be REACTIVE (as in the climate change and many other cases).

With time and with the improvement of our understanding of the issues involved, it is certain that the goals of international efforts toward global sustainability will be shifting. But this should not prevent us from creating those hubs of international scientific knowledge, which would officially start collecting the required data now. This we should be able to do - starting from now, because nothing else (apart from political will) stands in the way.

Political will and civil society

"Reducing the risk of potential global environmental disaster requires a 'constitutional moment' comparable in scale and importance to the reform of international governance that followed World War II, say experts preparing the largest scientific conference leading up to next June's Rio+20 Earth Summit"5

Humanity as a whole must come to the realisation that much more needs to be done now for our own future and for the future generations to come. And although political systems are very slow, they can be responsive to people's priorities. This has been demonstrated in the past and we know it can happen. There is a room for CIVIL SOCIETY to step in and make its voices heard.

"In his speech to the UN General Assembly this morning, US President Barrack Obama called on countries to "bring specific commitments to promote transparency" and to "energise civic engagement" when they return to meet next year. TAI lauds the President's bold initiative. He prefaced the call for specific commitments by asserting that "Civil society is the conscience of our communities" and that the common thread of progress was based on the "principle that government is accountable to its citizens".6

Organising a CIVIL SOCIETY movement

Civil society can play an important role in supporting statements like the one above made by President Obama. We understand that there are people in political corridors of power, who would be supportive of important new initiatives. In case of global sustainability, the impetus will have to come from outside of the existing national political systems, because this is a new emerging global issue and the today's political players continue to be divided into national groups and to act toward national interests.

One of the first initiatives of an organised group of Global Civil Society could be an urgent action to promote global sustainability (defined as long-term survival). The Global Civil Society could prepare an Open Letter to heads of all nations on Earth, including the Secretary General of the UN, in which the threats to global sustainability would be summarised and some necessary future initiatives proposed and outlined.

In conclusion it needs to be emphasised that we have found ourselves today in a new era of global, planetary and international relations. And although the world is deeply troubled by many old problems and wounds (wars, inequalities, diseases, poverty, mortality, and so on), the global sustainability agenda must come to the fore now, because if not, we may lose the security of our existence on the planet and life as we know will be over for all humanity. The existing problems will still need addressing, but this can be done in the framework of new global sustainability approach.

So, without blaming anyone for the current situation, let us start a discussion what can be done; what we, as a CIVIL SOCIETY, can do today? All views are welcome. We need to put together our collective wisdom and see what is practical and can be achieved.

Danuta Nowak


  • 1 The Future We Want, www.uncsd2012.org/content/documents/727TheFutureWeWant1 June1230pm.pdf
  • 2 www.wri.org/project/earth-summit-rio-2012
  • 3 www.ieg.earthsystemgovernance.org/news/2011-05-12/policy-assessment-institutional-frameork-for-sustainable-development
  • 4 www.accessinitiative.org/blog/2012/03/improving-institutional-framework-sustainable-developement Revolution
  • 5 www.ieg.earthsystemgovernance.org/news/2011-11-23/un-overhaul-required-govern-planet's-life-support-sysstem
  • 6 www.accessinitiative.org/blog/2010/09/president-obama-calls-for-global-commitments-on-open-and-accountable-government.