Interactive Dialogue of the General Assembly on Harmony with Nature: Scientific findings on the impacts of human activities on the functioning of the Earth’s Systems

Opening remarks by Mr. Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Secretary-General of the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development

Mr. Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, President of the General Assembly,
Distinguished panelists,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is an honor for me to address this Dialogue on Harmony with Nature. The Secretary-General regrets not being here in person due to his official travel and has asked me to convey his deep appreciation for your participation. He extends his best wishes for a productive dialogue.

Our Dialogue on Harmony with Nature today is an important step in our search for a sustainable future.

It also provides a critical contribution to the Rio+20 Conference.  It is a timely opportunity to reflect on our relations with Nature from a sustainable development perspective – to consider nature and human society as an inseparable whole – a whole that must stay in harmony.

Today’s dialogue focuses on a very important topic:  how science and policy can help humanity achieve sustainable development, in harmony with nature.

It is an enormous task: it requires inputs from all stakeholders, not governments alone – because we all have a stake in ensuring harmony with nature.

The scientific and technological community, including social scientists, can make a special contribution to today’s dialogue, with its focus on science and technology.

Indeed, we depend greatly on the knowledge, independence and insights of this community. 

Sustainable development policy must be grounded on solid scientific findings.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Since the Industrial Revolution, science and technology have assisted humanity in an endless quest for material prosperity.

The concentrated accumulation of wealth in 20 percent of the world’s population is symbolic of that success.

Yet at the same time, one fifth of humanity is severely deprived and unable to fulfill its basic needs for food, water, energy and sanitation.

Now, we are pushed against the carrying capacity of the planet. How long can we support unsustainable consumption, while so many of our fellow human beings are mired in extreme poverty?

As a whole, humanity has failed to view itself as an integral part of Nature.

We are currently living not only on one, but on several borrowed planets, and on borrowed time. 

So we need science and technology to play a different role.

It is time for science and technology to forge a stronger link to the wellbeing of society as a whole, not just the twenty percent.

Science and technology must now serve to move us onto a more sustainable growth path that brings prosperity to all, while helping us remain an integral part of Nature.

A new development model must emerge to help us heal the planet, while allowing everyone to benefit more smartly and efficiently from its resources.

Albert Einstein said, and I quote: “We are going to have to reassess and redefine the physical universe.” [Unquote] In the same way, as a society, we must now reassess our priorities, our relationship to the environment and our socio-economic needs. 

In this setting, allow me to say a few more words about how we organize our economies.

One of humanity’s most productive successes has been specialization.  To many economists, it is the key to economic success.

At the same time, specialization has also proven to be a shortcoming. Specialization can preclude holistic thinking, creating silo mindsets. 

We end up seeing only the trees and lose sight of the forest.

If our experience since 1992 has yielded any lessons, a major one is that we need holistic thinking.  It is the core of sustainable development. It anchors the nexus approach.

It is time to say goodbye to our old model of growth, fuelled by inefficient, wasteful, environmentally and socially unsustainable exploitation of resources.

It is time to regain balance and pursue a sustainable path, taking into account the Earth’s regenerative and carrying capacities.

This is why there was an Earth Summit in 1992 – to ensure that we are on the right and just path.

This is why Rio+20 is so critical – to assess progress, gaps in implementation and to change unsustainable consumption patterns. 

With this in mind, let me turn briefly to the science-policy interface in the ongoing consultations on the Rio +20 outcomes.

Foremost, science and technology are identified as a means of implementation in the negotiating text.

The science-policy interface also underlies priority areas identified by Member States. These include:

  • poverty eradication and jobs,
  • food security,
  • water,
  • energy,
  • cities,
  • disaster resilience,
  • and oceans and seas. 

Many member states are calling for a strong commitment to develop sound new knowledge to address complex sustainability issues. And they want to see a means of sharing this knowledge.

A number of Member States, as well as the scientific and technological community, would like to see a global mechanism to facilitate international scientific cooperation.

This would involve research, observations, knowledge sharing, training, capacity-building, and building on the work of existing international scientific organizations, inside and outside the UN system.

There are also calls for strengthening the science-policy interface, including regular reviews of the state of the planet.

Other actions would involve strengthening science-policy links at regional and national levels.

Some countries also want to see integrated science-based indicators that go beyond GDP.

The recent General Assembly dialogue on happiness and well-being, organized by the President of the General Assembly and the Kingdom of Bhutan, discussed some of these.

All these proposals are in line with the agenda for today’s dialogue.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As we get closer to Rio+20, we must keep the Earth in full view when making decisions and taking actions.

All around the world, people are united in the hope for a balanced and more sustainable world, anchored on the inter-linked three pillars of sustainable development.

Science and technology can help us recover our true sense of humanity and our connection to the planet.

Let us embrace a new awareness about the nature of our existence and our relationship with the Earth, and by extension, our relationship with the Universe.

This will lead us to the sustainable future we want.

I look forward to an inspiring and productive discussion this morning.

Thank you.