Press releases

Wednesday 28 May 1997

SID 22nd World Conference at Santiago de Compostela,

Spain, 23 May 1997  - Statement by Ms. Elizabeth Dowdeswell Executive Director United Nations Environment Programme

Sustainable development is very much about trying to understand context. Not to look at environmental problems in isolation. Sustainable development requires that we not look at environmental issues in isolation. Or social problems. Or to consider only the economic dimension. Or to look only through a technological lens. But rather to look at them in relation to each other. To develop solutions that will endure because they take into account the complexity of the real world in which we live.

This has lead UNEP to identify four broad themes for our programme of work. These themes cut across sectoral issues. Each provides a lens through which to look at environmental issues. The lenses have to do with: the increasing pressure and unsustainable demands on natural resources, the prevalence of unsustainable production and consumption patterns, the impact of environmental change on human health and well-being, and the impact of globalization of the economy on the environment.

It's not so much a matter of us having chosen these themes as much as they have chosen us. Quite clearly, they all impinge on human behaviour with respect to the environment, and any hope of understanding and addressing causes, rather than merely symptoms, of environmental damage, must take them into account.

Over the past few decades, it has become increasingly clear that environmental pollutants move freely throughout the biosphere and can visit any country in the world at any time. Pollutants emitted on this content may fall in the rain on the next. And phenomenon that some countries create can create global conditions with consequences for all.

Governments have recognized that the only prospect of adequately addressing such global environmental problems would be through multilateral agreements, and this is why UNEP was created.

But if there was a need 25 years ago for a global environmental organization, that need has only multiplied since. For now, not only do we recognize the global character of the environmental problems themselves, but ways in which other forces in the global political economy impinge on environmental issues. Globalization is a process that has been underway for centuries, if not millennia. As transportation and communications technologies have evolved from walking to the world wide web, the planet has become smaller and human society more integrated. And there have undoubtedly been people down through the ages lamenting this fact, but it is as inevitable as human curiosity and proclivity for invention.

Globalization is such a broad term. It is used as a kind of catch-all for a multitude of sins. But the fact that we are more interconnected on this planet than we have ever been before is not, in itself, a bad thing. The opportunity to learn from each other, to appreciate and benefit from our differences, and to build together on our strengths is surely a golden one. But there are also costs. And we believe that it is important to understand what they are in order to respond.

An aspect of globalization of great concern is trade. Growth in economic activity arising from trade liberalization also means growth in consumption and in production. This means more of the planets natural resources are being converted into products and services at a faster rate. They are travelling greater distances to reach their markets, and consuming more energy in the process. They are resulting in greater quantities of waste by-products in the manufacturing process and in more post-consumer waste for disposal. The pressure that intensive competition exerts on each hectare of land to produce more food and other agricultural products means more intensive use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, which can quickly lead to soil exhaustion while injecting more harmful chemicals into our land and ground water, and into our food and drinking water, and ultimately into our own bodies.

It is quite obviously human activity that is causing climate change, loss of biological diversity, deforestation, soil degradation, erosion and desertification, ozone depletion, pollution of our lakes, rivers and oceans, shortages of fresh water, air pollution in major cities, the prevalence of cancer-causing and endocrine-disrupting chemicals throughout the global environment, all with very damaging consequences for human well-being. And clearly, an escalation of such activity without any changes in how we do things can only make things worse. So, while there may be many benefits that arise from the liberalization of trade on a global scale, it is nonsense to suggest that it is not exacting a high environmental and, ultimately, human cost.

In years past, it would have fallen to government to do something about it. To set standards, establish regulations, provide incentives and penalties, pass laws that would protect the environment. But the remarkable thing about the current international political economy is that, while it increases the burden on the environment, it reduces the capacity of national governments to do anything about it, or at least to do anything about it alone, unilaterally.

The imperatives in the competition for international capital investment dictate smaller official debt and therefore smaller and less expensive government, reducing governments capacity to monitor environmental quality, set standards and enforce regulations. The hardships placed on domestic companies trying to gain shares of international markets while competing from a home base that has higher environmental standards than other countries is a distinct liability and politically difficult to sustain in the current job-hungry economy. The ever-present threat of multi-national companies to withdraw their operations in any country with higher than acceptable corporate tax expectations further constrains government's manoeuverability.

Contrary to what this must sound like, I do not wish to lament the emergence of the globalization of markets. My purpose is very much in keeping with the theme of this conference and that is to understand the reality of what exists as a necessary first step to developing thought on what can be done about it.

There's no turning back the clock. There is no un-inventing jet travel, satellite dishes and the internet. But what we can do and what we are already doing is recognizing that if we are to have a hope of dealing with the environmental effects of forces operating on a global scale, we will have to develop our capacity to achieve agreements on appropriate courses of action on a global scale as well. National governments may unwittingly be ceding their sovereign powers to the global market, but their sovereign responsibilities to their domestic populations remain intact. Fulfilling those responsibilities, meeting the needs, realizing the aspirations of a national citizenry can only be done, at this point in history, through international cooperation.

Politics at the national level is, of course, becoming very tricky indeed. Issuing promises to solve society's problems have been known, in the past, to win elections. But honouring those promises is becoming less and less within the capacity of our national parliaments. So promises get broken and electorates gets cynical. The logical extension of this trend is not very pleasing. And so we all have a very great and, I would say, urgent interest in recognizing that the world has changed in some very significant ways over the past few years, with rather major implications for the processes of democracy, and for the division of labour between governments and other elements of society including the private sector, workers and the civil society.

It has been the very useful and stimulating undertaking of this conference to examine that new division of labour and to explore possibilities for a greater role for civil society. Often those who raise concern about the free-reign of the free market are characterized as being opposed to freedom. Well, I would strongly challenge that assertion. On the contrary, while the word "liberalization" is meant to characterize the prevailing global trading order, I think it is worth examining who, exactly, it is liberating.

Government appears more constrained. How many times have you seen a politician shrug his shoulders and say the global economy made me do it? To survive in a highly competitive world, business must reduce the costs of its inputs, which often drives environment and labour standards down, and promotes the externalization of as many costs as possible. If those able to achieve the greatest economies of scale will be the winners, over time consumers will be pressed to adapt to a homogenized set of product preferences, with greatly limited choice.

There is the theory that very small and flexible producers can enter the global market place and win where the bigger more cumbersome giants can not. This, of course, has validity. There will always be blades of grass for the mice to nibble on that the elephants have missed. But the fact is that through an ongoing process of mergers and acquisitions, control of more and more of the private sector is falling into fewer and fewer hands.

Multinationals are not democratically accountable, yet they are becoming the dominant determinants of who works where, what environmental and labour standards and tax levels are acceptable, what products are available on the market and at what price. And this is a limitation of democratic freedom and consumer choice that ought to be of great concern. And it is quite ironic that while democracy over the past few years has finally begun to illuminate some of the previously darkest corners of this planet, the possibility of democratic processes having sway in shaping human society has been put so much in doubt during this same period. On the other hand, as I mentioned earlier, one of the great benefits of globalization is that not only are the lives of people all over the planet more integrated, but the connections between us are more obvious and undeniable.

This raises ethical questions. That we should treat others as we would wish them to treat us is a moral tenet fundamental to the functioning of society. Our values are connected to what we will tolerate being done to others and which we must assume could be done to us. At different times in history, we may have been able to define those others as people living in our neighbourhood, or our town or our country.

But now those others of whom we are becoming conscious, and whose well being is increasingly connected to ours, are people all over this planet. Those people who have been laid off by that company returning record dividends to its shareholders . . . they have something to do with me. Those little boys and girls whose childhoods have been traded away for the pennies they can earn making carpets that you and I pay thousands of dollars for . . . they are connected to us. Those men executed because they dared to speak out for the rights of their people whose homeland was being polluted by an oil company that sells me gasoline for my car . . . they have something to do with me.

The global economy connects us and global communication allows us to see those connections and their consequences. But I think the question before this conference is what can civil society now do about it? Where the state might previously have intervened in ways to attempt to compensate for the shortcomings of the market, where must civil society now take action? And how? It is not so much that the space needs to be created. There is, in fact, a gaping vacuum where once government was active. What remains is to allow others to enter that space.

The need to engage civil society more effectively is why UNEP launched its Global Environmental Citizenship Programme. This programme makes explicit the need to ensure that individuals understand not only their rights and aspirations for a healthy environment, but also accept their responsibility in ensuring that these aspirations are realized. Education is an important pillar to our programme since without the knowledge and understanding of the issues it is unlikely that effective civic engagement can be assured.

Hope for social and environmental well-being must now be placed on civil society. The knowledge, values, experience and ideas of individuals, groups and communities must be its well-springs. Their creativity, commitment and energy must be liberated, motivated, informed, empowered and backstopped.

It is clear that there remains an indispensable role for government and public administration, not to direct, control, regulate or implement, but to provide a context conducive to the development of social well-being - the setting of favourable policy, the use of incentives, the provision of information and technical assistance, institutional development, investment in infrastructure, resource rehabilitation, health, sanitation and water supply, and addressing issues of social development. In the brave new vision of social well-being, the role of public policy and administration as facilitator, energizer, stimulator, overseer and reinforcer is pivotal.

Opening spaces is about creating room to move. It is about freedom to act.

Some processes of globalization constrain that freedom, others expand it. It is absolutely right that we should be asking "which globalization?" This is vital work if we are to go beyond the proximate causes of environmental and social degradation and understand something about the context that makes it, in many cases, virtually inevitable. Even the greatest business and economics minds in the world recognized in Davos last year that economic progress resulting form the liberalization of international trade could well be jeopardized if it is not accompanied by social progress. And may I say I believe it is in itself a very liberating experience to have had the opportunity to participate in the discussion of this most important subject, and I thank the Society for International Development for having created the space in our lives where it could take place.

 

Wednesday 28 May 1997
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