Our planet’s current unprecedented challenges have moved the environment from being a marginal issue to being center stage in political and economic decision-making at the national and global levels.
The climate is changing, natural disasters are on the rise and resources are becoming scarce. Seasons are altering and sea levels and temperatures are rising. Nearly 40 years after the world’s first global environment conference and over 20 years after the Earth Summit in Rio, many of those concerns — which seemed far-fetched then — have now become a reality, challenging the prospect for close to seven billion people to be able to thrive, or even survive.
“In order to understand our current problems and how to solve them, we need to go back to the
basics, back to nature, back to our roots. And we need to do it urgently,” says Juanita Castaño, director of the New York Office at the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). The universal conscience of the United Nations, UNEP is the lead authority in articulating, facilitating, and supporting a response to the world’s environmental challenges and opportunities with a view of prosperity, stability, and equity. “Human beings have lost their connection with nature,” says Castaño. “People get so easily frustrated and depressed because they have lost their connection to themselves. They have forgotten that they are a species that is a part of nature.”
UNEP advocates and encourages respect for the environment within the U.N. system and among U.N. member states. Its six main areas of focus are climate change, disasters, and conflict, ecosystems, environmental governance, hazardous substances, and resource efficiency.
Advancing this agenda requires giving equal footing to the social and environmental aspects of sustainable development. UNEP wants people and governments to be aware of the fact that without a healthy environment there is no possibility for social and economic development.
“People think we’re talking about separate things when we talk about environment and social needs,” says Castaño. “Environment is basic for life. For instance, if you don’t have access to clean water, you cannot be healthy. Fifty percent of the illnesses in the world today are related to water diseases. This is a real social and economic problem for many countries.”
In the long term, UNEP hopes that governments can look at positive environmental actions as something that will also create jobs and generate well-being — thus going beyond traditional indicators of development, such as average income or gross domestic product. The environment is degrading, and the economic models used thus far are not helping.
“From a certain perspective, economic downturn affords us a way of changing things,” Castaño says. “Today we have the opportunity to think of the environment from a new perspective beyond the traditional conservational side of things.”
UNEP’s report “Towards a Green Economy,” its key contribution to the Rio+20 process and the U.N.’s overall goal of poverty eradication, makes a convincing economic and social case for investing 2 percent of global GDP in greening 10 central sectors of the economy. The purpose is to shift the development culture and lead public and private capital flows onto a low-carbon, resource-efficient path. This implies innovative economic models that invest in renewable energy, energy efficiency, public transportation, sustainable agriculture, biodiversity protection, and land and water conservation.
Most economic growth strategies so far have promoted rapid accumulation of physical, financial and human capital at the expense of a degradation of natural capital, including our endowment of natural resources and ecosystems. By depleting the world’s natural wealth — sometimes irreversibly — this pattern of development has had negative impacts on our well-being and presents huge risks for future generations.
The earth’s increasing crises are ultimately symptomatic of this pattern. That is why most of us feel some sense of responsibility when we see today’s environmental conditions. Because we have all been, consciously or unconsciously, a part of that accumulative and abusive mentality. But that is also the reason why “we all have an invaluable role to play to reverse things,” as Castaño reminds us. “Environment is a public-policy concern, but it is also an individual one. If we change the way we look at nature, nature would change the way it looks at us,” she says. “If people change their behavior and the way they relate to their environment — from exploitation to care — the earth will be protected and will be able to flourish.”
UNEP’s endeavor is for human consciousness to understand this basic principle so that we can ensure a stable and basic care of our needs and start to be creative in our environment.
As part of its efforts to encourage ownership and entrepreneurship at the local and individual level, UNEP hosts the SEED Initiative. The SEED Awards officially recognize inspiring social and environmental entrepreneurs whose businesses can help meet sustainable development challenges. A novel solar device that turns waste heat into electricity in rural China, a Ugandan business that produces stationery from agricultural waste, a bamboo bicycle project in Ghana and a female-run business in South Africa making a hand-held laundry device that saves water are among the 30 winners of the 2010 SEED Awards.
“We must spare no effort to free all of humanity, and above all our children and grandchildren, from the threat of living on a planet irredeemably spoiled by human activities,” Castaño says.