Over the past two centuries, remarkable gains in living
standards encouraged some of us to believe that natural limits
to human well-being had been conquered. But now the sheer
number of human beings, the natural desire of all of them to
share the prosperity so far enjoyed only by a few, and the
unprecedented rate at which we are using energy and other
resources, have taken us into uncharted territory.
We should no longer imagine either that a fifth of humanity
can indefinitely enjoy prosperity while much larger numbers
live lives of deprivation and squalor, or that patterns of
production and consumption that destroy the environment can
bring us lasting prosperity.
The issue is not environment versus development, or ecology
versus economy. It is wrong, for example, to depict all
economic growth and development as leading inexorably to the
apocalypse. But it is also wrong to downplay the real
ecological problems we face, or to assure ourselves that some
spontaneous technological breakthrough will come to our
rescue. Rather, the issue is how to integrate environment with
We thought we had found a way out of this predicament 10
years ago, with the agreements reached at the Earth Summit in
Rio de Janeiro. But progress since then has been slower than
we had hoped. Developed countries, in particular, have not
lived up to the promises they made either to protect the
environment or to help the developing world. Discussions on
finance and the economy, from the local to the global, still
treat the environment like an unwelcome guest.
Now we have another chance to get
this right: the World Summit on Sustainable Development, to be
held in Johannesburg in three months' time. Of course, one
summit meeting by itself will not change history. But I
believe this summit will be seen to have marked a
turning-point, if we win clear commitments to change, and new
initiatives to make it happen, in five specific areas.
The first of these is water. In order to save the more than
3m people who die each year from water-related diseases, we
must improve water and sanitation services, and access to
them, by finding new money for water development and
management. And in order to save two-thirds of the world's
population from facing serious water shortages in the decades
ahead, we must reduce leakage and waste, particularly in
agriculture ("more crop per drop"), and provide for
regional management of watersheds vital to more than one
The second area is energy. In
order to give poor people a chance to
escape from poverty, we must provide clean energy for the 2bn
people who now lack it. And in order to make sure this advance
is not accompanied by disastrous climate change, we must
improve energy efficiency, use more renewable energy,
implement the Kyoto protocol, put an end to perverse subsidies
and tax incentives and fund research on new types of clean
energy and carbon sequestration.
Third, we must focus on health. In order to save the lives
of millions who die each year from an unsafe environment -
dirty water, indoor air pollution, toxic wastes, insects that
transmit deadly diseases - we must redouble our efforts to
create a safe environment, make immunisation and treatment
available to all and increase our research on the tropical
diseases that impose huge human and economic burdens on the
world's poorest countries.
The fourth priority should be agriculture. In order to
ensure that food production keeps pace with the number of
mouths to feed, we must find ways to halt land degradation and
reverse the sharp decline in agricultural productivity,
particularly in Africa.
That means planning and managing land use more responsibly,
implementing the United Nations Convention to Combat
Desertification and funding research on new drought-resistant
The fifth area of focus is biodiversity. To halt the
galloping extinction of other species, which has devastating
implications for human life, we must clamp down on illegal and
unsustainable fishing and logging practices; we must help
people who currently depend on such activities to find other,
more sustainable ways of earning their living; and we must
fund new research into ecosystems and biodiversity.
In all these areas there are things we can do now, with the
technologies already at our disposal, provided we give the
right incentives. But science will bring us many more
solutions if we make the right investment in research.
Knowledge has always been the key to human development. It
will also be the key to sustainability.
This agenda will sound impossibly ambitious to some,
disappointingly narrow to others. But I believe it represents
the essential, achievable start we must make if we are to
preserve the hope of a decent life for our children and
grandchildren. And that is what Johannesburg is all about.
The writer is secretary-general of the United Nations