Tackling sustainability challenges

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian) comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on July 25, 2014

 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told a June conference in Kenya that protecting the environment is a crucial priority for the world’s citizens.

©Associated Press photo

Guest Opinion: With the purpose of expanding and strengthening the role of the present United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), a new governing body of the UPEP, with representatives from all UN member states,  was conceived by the world leaders at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in Rio de Janeiro in 2012.

Subsequently, a landmark inaugural meeting of the UNEA was convened last month in Nairobi, Kenya, from 23 to 27 June 2014. Over 1,200 high-level participants attended this historic meeting —the highest-level UN body ever convened to discuss environmental sustainability issues.

“With its augmented role as a subsidiary organ of the UN General Assembly, UNEA has the mandate and capacity to position the environment alongside peace and security, poverty reduction, global health, trade and sustainable economic growth as an issue of crucial importance to every government,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at this momentous meeting.

Also, Ban Ki-moon emphasized the need for unwavering action to change humanity’s relationship with planet Earth. Protecting our life-supporting system of the Earth is integral to sustainable development.

He said forcefully and succinctly: “The air we breathe, the water we drink and the soil that grows our food are part of a delicate global ecosystem that is increasingly under pressure from human activities. As our population grows, we have to recognize that our consumption of the planet’s resources is unsustainable. We see the heavy hand of humankind everywhere — from tropical deforestation to depleted ocean fisheries; from growing freshwater shortages to increasingly polluted skies and seas, land and water in many parts of the world; from the rapid decline of biodiversity to the growing menace of climate change.”

The opening session of UNEA dealt with mounting environmental problems such as illegal wildlife trade, chemical waste, air pollution, and new development goals.  Comprehending the fact that every second around 200 tonnes of plastic wastes are dumped into the world’s oceans is difficult. The fragile marine ecosystems are increasing jeopardized, despite our growing awareness of the problem, and the financial damage alone amounts to $13 billion a year, according to a recent UN estimate.

Environmental crime epidemic, such as  poaching and trafficking of a wide range of animals, illegal fisheries, illegal mining and dumping of toxic waste, among other things, poses a shocking threat to security and development, according to a recent report from the UNEP and INTERPOL. The monetary value of all environmental crime is worth up to US$213 billion each year, compared with global Overseas Development Assistance of around US$135 billion a year.

“Beyond immediate environmental impacts, the illegal trade in natural resources is depriving developing economies of billions of dollars in lost revenues just to fill the pockets of criminals,” said UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director Achim. “Sustainable development, livelihoods, good governance and the rule of law are all being threatened as significant sums of money are flowing to militias and terrorist groups.”

Given ever more disquieting state of the global environment, we have entered a new era in tackling the Gordian knot of sustainability challenges of the 21st century. First and foremost, a transition from inherently unsustainable development trajectory to sustainable development trajectory requires a fundamental change in our socioeconomic system. Surprisingly, four decades have gone by since the 1972 UN Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. Over the years, there has been no dearth of international conferences, UN summits, and mountains of scientific reports that have dealt with sustainability crisis of our time. Yet, the crisis has been deepening. It is time to recognize the obvious fact that the root cause of the sustainability crisis has not been addressed at all.  We have been trying to move towards sustainable development path without changing the system which is contributing to the problem. At levels of decision-making, we continue to think ‘inside the box’ rather than thinking ‘outside the box’ for taking bold action to cut the Gordian knot of sustainability.

Human and nature dynamics (HANDY), a mathematical model of developed by Motessarrie, Rivas and Kalny (2014), published in latest issue of Ecological Economics, shows that unsustainable exploitation of natural resources or increasingly unequal wealth distribution can independently lead to collapse of modern societies. Societal collapse can be averted if the rate of deletion of natural capital can be reduced to a sustainable level, with an equitable distribution of resources. The validity of this handy model lies in reproducing the irreversible collapses of past societies.

Just two years ago, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reminded the world community, during his opening statement at Rio+20, that our efforts in dealing with climate change and environment “have not lived up to the measure of the challenge.” He said: “Nature does not wait. Nature does not negotiate with human beings.”

Against the backdrop of what is going on in the global environmental landscape, it is time to reflect and ponder whether Homosapiens would be able to avert the possible collapse of modern societies with wisdom and foresight.  Will UNEA pave the way for taking a sharp U- turn in moving towards sustainable development trajectory? Time will tell.


Dr. Palanisamy Nagarajan is emeritus professor of economics and Island Studies Teaching Fellow, University of Prince Edward Island.