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Ethics and Environment

11 August 1997 - World Environment Day 1997, We live in the midst of startling paradoxes. We have it within ourselves to abolish hunger, yet we feel nobler organizing charities for starving children.

We have the power to heal the sick and bring health to all, yet we feel righteous in devising increasingly complex methods of damaging human health.

We have the power to liberate people from the fear of unexpected death, yet we are busy making people afraid of modern science and industry.
We have the power to let peoples and nations come together in peace to realize the true potential of humankind, yet we are busy spending trillions of dollars on armaments to separate them in fear and hatred.

Today, it is obvious that our relationship with each other and with environments in which we live are not healthy.

According to UNEP's "state of the world report", the Global Environment Outlook, five years after the Earth Summit at Rio, the global environment has continued to deteriorate in all regions of the world.

Degradation of drylands continues to be an urgent global problem, placing some one billion people in 110 countries at risk.
The world's forests and wooded land have shown a decline of some two per cent.
Worldwide habitat loss and fragmentation and the lack of biological corridors have led to the continuous decline in biological diversity.
Some 1,700,000 people, more than one third of the world's population, are without a supply of safe water.
One third of the world's coastal regions are at high risk of degradation, particularly from land-based activities.
Acid rain and transboundary air pollution, once considered a problem only in Europe and parts of North America, are now increasingly apparent in parts of Asia and the Pacific and Latin America.

Despite coordinated action worldwide, damage to the ozone layer continues faster than expected, with the next 10 years predicted to be the most vulnerable.
The rapidly rising demand for energy to fuel economic development will aggravate these problems, particularly in Asia and the Pacific, where a 100 per cent increase in energy use is predicted for the period of 1990 to 2010.
The polar regions, representing the largest remaining natural ecosystems on Earth are also coming under increasing stress, particularly from long-range pollutant transport and deposition.

Internationally and nationally, the funds and political will remain insufficient to halt further global environmental degradation and to address the most pressing environmental issues - even though the technology and knowledge are available to do so.

Although there is repeated acknowledgement of both the vicious cycle of poverty and its intrinsic linkages with the environment and the urgency to address poverty alleviation, little evidence has emerged that effective and concerted actions have been taken since Rio to ensure that environmental policies benefit the poorest members of society.

Many things which are wrong such as hunger, disease, illiteracy, the pollution of the environment can be corrected by science, by socially directed technology. Yet with the development of technology and communications, which could have given reality and substance to the concept of one planet and one family, we find that we have not taken adequate steps to move in that direction.

Responsibility for well-being. Stewardship in symbiosis with all creatures. This is the role envisioned for us. And it is a role in which we can imagine ourselves. We know the great human capacity to nurture, to be compassionate and to love. Why have we not allowed this capacity to guide our behaviour and our manner of relating to others and to our surroundings?

In our management of the natural world, we have learned the use of tools, ingenious and very useful devices that increase our efficiency in converting the bounty of nature into products that enhance the quality of human life. And clearly scientific and technological advances have made many of our lives much safer and more comfortable. Still, while seeking ever greater control of our natural surroundings, we are shamefully out of control of ourselves.

We are on a course to provide full employment for machines and full unemployment for people the world over. Billions of dollars can flow from London to Tokyo in the blink of an eye, we can shake hands with cosmonauts thousands of kilometres out into space, but we can not ensure the availability of safe drinking water that would prevent the deaths of thousands of children each day right here on Earth.

And no company, no country, and certainly no individual, seems able to do anything about it.

It is ironic that just as the light of democracy has begun to illuminate every previously dark corner of the world, our democratic decision-making power should become redundant in the global economy. The shape and character of human society seems to be beyond human control.

The price we pay for this excessive cultural habit of competitive consumption is the continual degradation of the real quality of life -- the air we breathe, the food we eat, the environment we live in, and the social relations that constitute the fabric of our lives.

There is a yearning for direction, a quest for some set of values that can transcend our differences and help bring people together, to foster more collaboration and less conflict. But it is easy to call for a return to values. The question is .... what values? Who's ethics? What set of ethics can we build on together in our pursuit of peace? How must we regard our relationship with our environment so that it may continue to foster a rich diversity of life on planet Earth?

Everyday in the news we see the fallout from how we humans relate to each other and to the environments in which we live. That television screen is our mirror. We can say that's not me. That's not my world. I didn't do that. That's somebody else. That's those people living far from here. Or that's those tycoons in big business. That's the sensationalist media. That's the Government. And that may all be true. But it is also me and it is also you.

The answer lies not in becoming permanently indignant.

Hope begins not with wishing the problems would go away, or ignoring them, or denying them, or concluding that the scientists must be wrong. Hope begins when we have a willingness to change.

The Seoul Declaration encompasses a new vision of humanity, a vision that will nourish life in all its myriad forms, a vision that allows a deeper understanding of the quality of life, a sense of stewardship for the planet and a vision that allows for equitable access to all to the fruits of development.

The Seoul Declaration encourages us to think holistically. When we do this, we become aware of the essential unity of life on this planet, that the nature of the whole determines the characteristics of the parts and that there are interconnections between the two. A vision broad enough to include the needs of the future generations and include a global view of the earth as a life-supporting system.

The Seoul Declaration is built upon the notion of responsibility towards the environment. If we are aware of the inter-connectedness of things, we cannot deny our responsibility for other life forms on earth. We are accountable to the future generations for the use we make now of our bio-sphere. Classic economic notions of efficiency can no longer be the guiding factor of our decisions.

The Seoul Declaration recognizes that we live in a world of finite resources. Resources should not be consumed in a way that impoverishes people in other parts of the planet. Responsibility means being accountable to other societies as well.

And finally, the Seoul Declaration acknowledges universal justice as applied to the environment. Injustice to one is injustice to all. Universal freedom will be an empty slogan until all living beings are freed from unprincipled exploitation. Every species on this earth has a right to survival, for its existence is linked to that of the entire community of life on the earth.

I applaud the efforts the Korea Environmental Technology Research Institute has made in bringing together so many luminaries from all countries to work for a new and better world. This is a concrete example of global environmental citizenship.

When we realize that how we live affects the well-being of other people and other living creatures, what dies is our skepticism about our ability to make things better. What's born is the realization that we can make a difference and, what's more, that if we aspire to a better world, that it is up to us to make it happen.

We need an awakening of our faith -- faith in ourselves to make that difference.

Ghandi said it best -- we must be the change we wish to see in the world. It is within our power to walk more lightly on this Earth, to displace competition with collaboration, to live in peace.

On this World Environment Day, let in each of us be reborne our compassion, our love -- for all Life on Earth.

Statement by Ms. Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Executive Director United Nations Environment Programme,

to the
Environment and Ethics Roundtable 

Monday 11 Aug 1997
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