As you know, reform of the United Nations has now become an important political issue, particularly in the United States where it is linked closely with the future role of the United States in the UN. It was the US leadership following World War II that led to the creation of the UN and the US has since been its principal supporter both in financial and political terms, and is now leading the drive for reform, both to improve performance and reduce costs.


Maurice Strong: The Benjamin H. Read Lecture at the Episcopal Academy, Merion, Pennsylvania. USA

The opportunity you have provided me today to deliver the 1997 Benjamin Read Lecture is one that has a very special meaning for me. For Ben Read was one of the finest people I have ever had the privilege to know. I can think of no higher compliment than to have been asked to deliver the lecture that has been established in his honour by this Academy in which the values, the qualities and the insights which shaped his remarkable career of service to his nation and the world community were nourished and developed. know that the Episcopal Academy had a special place in his life and his heart and I am deeply moved to join you in thisway in paying tribute to his memory.

I was privileged to know Ben Read as friend and role model and in the final years of his life to be the prime beneficiary of his wise counsel, broad experience and total devotion to the key role he played in organizing the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, better known as the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992. He was the quiet hero of the Earth Summit and made a unique and indispensable contribution to it. When I took on the responsibilities of Secretary-General of the Conference, one of the first calls I received was from Ben Read offering his services on a voluntary basis. With characteristic modesty, he declined to play the up-front visible role that his stature and his experience would have warranted and chose rather to become my informal coach and advisor, putting at our disposal his unique and formidable range of talents, experience and network of influential people. His modest, ever thoughtful demeanour, together with his well honed policy judgement and his tireless efforts in mobilizing political and material support won him the esteem and admiration of all our team. I am pleased to be able to acknowledge here in this fifth anniversary year of the Earth Summit, the immense contribution he made to it in this last phase of his distinguished public service career for which the entire world community owes him an enduring debt of gratitude.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm, Sweden, in June 1972, and the 5th anniversary of the Earth Summit. The Stockholm Conference put the environment issue on the international agenda. It led to a proliferation of new environmental initiatives and the creation of the United Nations Environment Program, headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya, as well as national environmental ministries or agencies in most countries. However, despite progress in many areas, it became evident by the mid-1980s that, overall, the environment was still deteriorating and the economic behaviour largely responsible for this was continuing.

Our common future

In response, the United Nations General Assembly established the World Commission for Environment and Development under the Chairmanship of Norway's Gro Harlem Brundtland, one of the world community's most enlightened and respected leaders. Its report, "Our Common Future" made the case for sustainable development as the only viable pathway to a secure and hopeful future for the human community. Its recommendations led to a decision by the UN General Assembly in December 1989 to hold a new conference, the UN Conference on Environment and Development, on the 20th anniversary of the Stockholm conference and to accept the invitation of Brazil to host it. To underscore the importance of the conference it was decided that it should be held at the "Summit" level and it is now known universally as "The Earth Summit".

As an event itself, Rio was clearly remarkable, indeed historic. Never before had so many of the world's political leaders come together in one place, and the fact that they came to consider the urgent question of our planet's future put these issues under an enormous international spotlight. This was helped by the presence at Rio, both in the conference itself and the accompanying "Global Forum", of an unprecedented number of people and organizations representing every sector of civil society, and more than double the number of media representatives than had ever covered a world conference.

This "people-pressure" helped to move governments to agree on a set of principles, the Declaration of Rio, and a comprehensive program of action to give effect to these principles, Agenda 21.

Historic conventions

The Earth Summit produced agreement on two historic framework conventions, one on Climate Change and the other on Biodiversity which have since come into effect. It also launched the negotiating process which has led to agreement on a Convention on Desertification, an issue of special importance to many developing countries, particularly in the arid regions of Sub-Saharan Africa.
Despite shortcomings, the agreements reached at Rio represent the most comprehensive program ever agreed by government for the shaping of the human future. And the fact that they were agreed by virtually all of the governments of the world, most of them represented by their head of government, gives them a high degree of political authority. But, as we have seen, it does not ensure their implementation. This will depend on what governments and others do to follow up and give concrete effect to the decisions taken at Rio.
So far the record is mixed at best, particularly at the level of governments. To some degree this is understandable. The changes called for at Rio were fundamental in nature and will not come quickly or easily. Climate change is a case in point. Although the latest report of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change points to growing scientific evidence that human activities are a major contributor, it is clear that even the modest targets set by the parties to the Convention on Climate Change will not be achieved.

Overall, as a report commissioned for the Rio +5 Forum on the "Ecological Foot Prints of Nations" points out, humanity's consumption continues to be bigger that what nature can regenerate on a continuous basis. We continue on a pathway that is not sustainable and are still far from making the transition to a sustainable mode of life called for at the Earth Summit.

The evidence produced for the Earth Summit made it clear that what is needed is fundamental change in the dynamics and direction of our economic life. This basic change of course has not occurred and until it does we will, despite our rhetoric and good intentions, continue to move in a direction that is simply not sustainable.

Explosion of activities

The most exciting and promising post-Rio developments are occurring outside of governments, where there has a virtual explosion of activities and initiatives on the part of grass-roots organizations, citizen groups and other key sectors of society. The Earth Council was formed as a direct result of the Earth Summit in order to facilitate cooperative action to implement Agenda 21 by empowering people at the grass-roots and community level, supporting their initiatives and linking them to the larger policy and decision making processes which affect them.

In cooperation with the Earth Council, engineers and architects through their international bodies, have committed their professions to cooperative programs designed to support implementation of Agenda 21 in their sectors. The World Tourist and Travel Council, representing what is now the world's largest single industry, and the International Road Transport Union representing the transport sector which is so important in both environmental and economic terms, have both, in cooperation with the Earth Council, developed their own versions of Agenda 21 for their industries, and other sectors are taking similar action. Some 1800 cities and towns around the world have adopted their own local Agenda 21 under the aegis of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, again with the support and cooperation of the Earth Council.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development has been reconstituted with a membership of some 120 chief executives of major companies around the world with a commitment to continuing leadership in effecting the change of course called for at Rio. And regional business councils are being established to facilitate this process at the regional level.

The prospects for the "Change of Course" called for at Rio will be re-examined at the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly convened in June this year to review progress since the Earth Summit and provide new impetus and direction to following up and implementing its results. It was preceded by a meeting of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development completed last week in New York. And on March 13-19, 1997, a "People's Assembly", the Rio +5 Forum took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It brought together some 500 representatives of National Councils for Sustainable Development and similar bodies from throughout the world, together with representatives of key civil society sectors and constituencies, to share their experiences and renew their commitment to implementing Rio's Agenda 21. Its focus was on moving "From Agenda to Action" and it provided an important civil society input into the official processes.
The Rio +5 Forum was accompanied by the first meeting of the Earth Charter Commission which produced a benchmark draft of a People's Earth Charter promulgating basic moral and ethical principles for the conduct of people towards each other and the Earth. This will provide the focal point for an extensive dialogue under the auspices of civil society organizations in all parts of the world designed to produce an Earth Charter that will have the kind of broad support from people everywhere that will ensure that governments take account of it.

Original aspirations

This process builds on a piece of unfinished business at Rio where we were unable to achieve our original aspirations for agreement by governments on an Earth Charter. Values, ethics and moral principles provide the basic underpinnings of our societies and the underlying motivation for our attitudes and behaviour. Thus, acceptance of these principles as set out in the Earth Charter would provide the moral and ethical foundations for the transition to a sustainable way of life on our planet.

As we move into the 21st Century, human ingenuity and the miracles wrought by our accomplishments in science and technology have produced a civilization beyond the wildest dreams of earlier generations and given us the tools with which to shape an even more exciting and promising future. But these same forces have also given rise to some serious and deepening imbalances which. must be seen as ominous threats to our common future.

These threats stem primarily from the concentration during this century of economic growth, and its benefits, in the industrialized countries, and population growth, with its attendant costs and pressures, in the developing countries. This is accentuating rich-poor differences both within and amongst nations and compounding the problems of managing cooperatively the risks to our common future arising from the growing pressures on the Earth's resource and life-support systems.

The more rapidly developing countries of Asia and Latin America are leading the revitalization of the global economy, challenging its domination by the traditional industrialized countries and re-shaping the geo-political landscape. At the same time, developing countries continues to be home to most of the world's poverty and much of its conflict at the same time as it is generating the lion's share of new economic growth. But the developing world has never been homogenous. The rapid changes occurring there are deepening the processes of differentiation, particularly between those who are growing and those who continue in the grip of economic stagnation and poverty. These changes have immense implications for all of us. In environmental terms alone they could be decisive for the human future.

Same growth pathway

The fact is that whether or not developing countries follow the same growth pathway taken by the more mature industrialized countries, their impacts will undoubtedly move us beyond the thresholds of safety and sustainability. Our environmental future will be largely determined by what happens in the developing world. Yet we who have largely created these risks, and benefitted most from the processes of industrialization that have given rise to them, can scarcely deny the right of developing countries to grow. Nor would it be fair or reasonable for us to seek to impose unilaterally constraints on their growth in the name of environment.

Some of the most environmentally devastated areas of the world are in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe. We have a compelling interest in helping to ensure that they rebuild their economies on an environmentally sound and sustainable basis. I will not focus on them here except to say that they are a critically important part of the problem and must share fully in the solutions to them.

Developing countries are contributing more and more to the larger global risks such as those of climate change, ozone depletion, degradation of biological resources, and loss or deterioration of arable lands. China has already become the second largest source of CO2 emissions and will almost certainly succeed the United States to the dubious honour of becoming Number 1. Meanwhile, in our countries, as these issues have somewhat receded from our own immediate experience, it has become more difficult to maintain the levels of public interest and commitment required to support the actions needed to deal with them. It is sobering to remind ourselves that all of the environmental deterioration and risks that have arisen to date have occurred at levels of population and economic activity that are much less than they will be in the period ahead.

A series of paradoxes is developing which will soon confront both industrialized and developing countries with some very painful tensions and challenges. While efficient and competitive economies produce more gross national product, the benefits accrue disproportionately to the minority who have capital and knowledge to deploy. This class is highly mobile and those in it can move their assets and activities across national borders.

Extreme poverty

Meanwhile, the continued existence of extreme poverty with its attendant deprivation and suffering affecting some 1.3 billion of the world's people is an affront to the moral basis of our civilization. All the more so in that the means to eradicate it clearly exists. What is needed is the assertion of a new political and moral will which would in turn produce the social and economic innovation required to devise the means to deal effectively with it. The gaps between rich and poor, privileged and underprivileged, are deepening, both within and amongst societies. This process, if it is not reversed will inevitably lead to greater social tensions and potential for conflict. Democratic, market capitalism must find ways of dealing with these emerging dilemmas or risk becoming the victim of its own success. It must become just as effective at meeting society's environmental needs as it is in generating economic growth.

A recent article in "The Economist" - hardly a radical publication - stated that "if the Marxist prediction of a proletariat plunged into abject misery under capitalism has so far been unfulfilled, the widening gap between haves and have-nots is causing some to think that Marx might yet be proved right on this point after all". And George Soros, one of the capitalist system's most successful practitioners, has warned that capitalism is replacing communism as the main threat to the future of our societies.

A countryman of mine, Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon cites the growing potential for eco-conflicts as a result of competition for land and other resources that become locally scarce and competition for shared resources like river systems and common areas like the oceans. The recent confrontation between Canada and the European Union over depleting fish stocks is a portent of this.
What, then, is the answer to this bewildering complex of forces that are shaping our future? The sobering fact is that the answer lies with us. After a long period of evolution human beings have emerged as the dominant species on our planet. But we are a species out of control. Human numbers and the scale and intensity of human activities have reached the point at which we are now affecting, perhaps decisively, the basic conditions and balances on which our life and well-being depend. We have become the principal determinants of our own evolution and we have no option but to manage the forces that are shaping our future, or we will surely be engulfed by them. It is an awesome responsibility and one for which we are clearly,Dotyet ready.

Dominant ethos

For today the dominant ethos is that of individual self-interest. And I am sure that everyone here would share my deep belief that individual rights and freedoms constitute the fundamental foundations of our society. But in order to be able to exercise these rights and freedoms, they must be accompanied by a high sense of responsibility to each other and to future generations. It is this sense of responsibility that must be re-furbished as many of the actions to ensure a secure and sustainable future for those who follow us on this planet require new dimensions of cooperation with others, both at home and internationally. This is particularly true of our relationship with developing countries.

We must leave "space" for developing countries to grow and to set them an example that enables them to avoid the abuses and the costs of our own growth experience. For they willbemuchmore influencedbyourexample, andbyevidencethatsustainabledevelopment is in their own interest, than by our exhortations.

It is clearly in our own interest to ensure that developing countries have both the incentives and the means to make the transition to sustainability. This means facilitating their access to the latest state-of-the-art technologies and to the additional capital they will need to employ them. It would be unrealistic to expect that this would come through increases in foreign aid in traditional terms. But as pointed up in a recent Earth Council study, governments everywhere continue to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on direct and indirect subsidies for activities which run counter to sustainable development -as for example to chemically-intensive agriculture, to water and fossil fuels. These impose costly burdens' on people as taxpayers and consumers as well as encouraging environmentally unsound and unsustainable practices. A reorientation and redeployment of these resources would provide all the resources required to effect the transition to sustainable development, at home and abroad, while improving economic efficiency.

Decline of foreign aid

Foreign aid is in decline and private investment now accounts for the principal flows of financial resources to the rapidly developing countries. Accordingly, we must develop the incentives and innovative financial mechanisms to ensure that private capital will support development that is sustainable. Such new financial mechanisms as tradeable emission permits can utilize markets to channel funds available for environmental improvement to the places where they can be employed on the most cost-effective basis. Only by the "greening" of private capital can we make the transition to sustainability provided for in Rio's Agenda 21.

The care and management of our relationship with each other and with the Earth requires a degree of cooperative stewardship beyond anything we have yet realized. The multi-lateral institutions, particularly those established since World War II provide the institutional framework for the system of governance by states required to exercise such stewardship. But they are the newest, least developed, least appreciated and least supported of all the levels in our hierarchy of governance.

At the global level, the United Nations and its specialized agencies and organizations, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, constitute the principal elements of this multi-lateral system. There are also many other regional and specialized organizations which perform important functions within the extended family of the community of international institutions.

There has been a plethora of reports, studies and proposals for reforming and strengthening these organizations and some progress has been made in this direction, but far too little. The reason is a built-in resistance to change within some of the institutions themselves and lack of sufficient concerted political will to change on the part of the governments concerned, even in some cases those who are the most vocal advocates of change.

Reform of the United Nations

As you know, reform of the United Nations has now become an important political issue, particularly in the United States where it is linked closely with the future role of the United States in the UN. It was the US leadership following World War II that led to the creation of the UN and the US has since been its principal supporter both in financial and political terms, and is now leading the drive for reform, both to improve performance and reduce costs.

I am convinced that, overall, the changes on which the United States government is insisting are achievable if not in every respect exactly in the way in which the US would prefer.

We are singularly fortunate at this time of change to have as the leader of the United Nations, the new Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who brings to the position a greater degree of knowledge and experience of the organization than any of his predecessors. He has made reform of the UN his highest priority and brought responsibility for driving the process into his own office, in which I have the privilege of assisting him.

There are some issues about which it is important to be clear. The United Nations is not a world government; it was established by governments, with the leadership of the United States, as a servant of governments to help them to do cooperatively those things that they cannot do, or do as effectively, on their own. Its decisions and the revenues required to carry them out remain entirely the prerogative of member governments. It has no taxing or enforcement power of its own and it does not aspire to level its own taxes or to usurp the sovereignty of governments. In those areas in which governments decide that they wish to use the UN as an instrument for collaborative action, they do this through a willful exercise of their sovereignty, not an abdication of sovereignty.

I am persuaded that the 21st Century will be decisive for the human species. For all the evidences of environmental degradation, social tension and inter-communal conflict have occurred at levels of population and human activity that are a great deal less than they will be in the 21st Century. Theoretically one can make a case that these problems will be manageable. But in practice it will require that we extend to the global level the kind of social discipline and cooperative management that some of the more successful modern societies, notably the United States, have developed. Prospects for this are not promising without major changes in current attitudes and practices.

The risks we face in common from the mounting dangers to the environment, resource base and life support systems on which all life on earth depends, are far greater as we move into the 21st century than the risks we face or have faced in our conflicts with each other. All people and nations have in the past been willing to accord highest priority to the measures required for their own security. We must give the same kind of priority to environmental security. This will take a major shift in the current political mind-set. Necessity will compel such a shift eventually; the question is can we really afford the costs and risks of waiting.

In the final analysis, the behaviour of individuals as well as the priorities of society respond to the deepest moral, ethical and spiritual values of people. I am convinced that the radical changes now occurring in our society are producing a historic convergence between our traditional perceptions of relationships, between the practical aspects of human life and its moral and spiritual dimensions. It has too often been assumed in the past that there is an essential dichotomy between the "real world" of practical affairs and the more ethereal, ideal world of morals and spirit.

Concepts of mutual respect, caring for, sharing with and cooperating with our brothers and sisters both at home and internationally can no longer be seen as mere pious ideals divorced from reality, but as indispensable prerequisites for our common survival and well-being.

It is on these foundations that our hopes for a more promising, sustainable future must be built.