Sustainable Development Must Be Grounded in Science, New Paradigm Should Reflect Human Impacts on Earth’s System, General Assembly Told in Interactive Debate

18 April 2012

Sustainable Development Must Be Grounded in Science, New Paradigm Should Reflect Human Impacts on Earth’s System, General Assembly Told in Interactive Debate

18 April 2012
General Assembly
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-sixth General Assembly

Interactive Dialogue

AM Meeting

Sustainable Development Must Be Grounded in Science, New Paradigm Should Reflect

Human Impacts on Earth’s System, General Assembly Told in Interactive Debate


Expert Panel Says Science Shows Humankind

At Perilous Point, Never Before Has More Been Asked of Diplomacy

Specialization made a major contribution to economic success, but precluded holistic thinking, a mindset vital to sustainable development, senior United Nations officials said today, underscoring the important role of science in crafting a new paradigm that reflected the impacts of human activity on the Earth’s system and sought to devise ways to minimize or reverse them.

“Sustainable development policy must be grounded on solid scientific findings,” Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs and Secretary-General of the upcoming Conference on Sustainable Development ( Rio+20), said in opening remarks to a General Assembly interactive dialogue on harmony with nature.  Spawned by the adoption of a resolution last year, today’s discussion aimed to examine how human activity had damaged the Earth, focusing on those areas where that damage had already affected the planet’s regenerative capacity.

Humanity had failed to view itself as an integral part of nature, said Mr. Zukang, stressing the need for science and technology to forge a stronger link to the well-being of society as a whole, and not just to the 20 per cent of the world’s population in which wealth was concentrated.  He noted specialization was, to many economists, the key to economic success, but had also proven to be a shortcoming as it created “silo” mindsets.  “We end up seeing only the trees and lose sight of the forest,” he said, adding “it is time to say good-bye to our old model of growth, fuelled by inefficient, wasteful, environmentally and socially unsustainable exploitation of resources.”

General Assembly President Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser said in his message delivered by the body’s Vice President, Peter Thomson, that the international community was facing two fundamental questions:  how life could be sustained while the planet was protected; and what the Earth required in order to support 7 — soon to be 9 – billion people.  

He said that humanity was for the first time acknowledging that the sustainability of life on Earth was a serious question that would drive fundamental decisions in societies and the world at large.  He called on academia to play an important role in clarifying those global issues.  The contribution of science and innovation in achieving sustainable development “cannot be underestimated” and “scientists must guide this new paradigm”, he added.

Rafael Archondo (Bolivia), whose delegation had taken the lead in designating 22 April as International Mother Earth Day, said science and politics must go hand in hand, a phenomenon that rarely happened.  In politics, people liked pleasant news, whereas science preferred “unpleasant truths”, which came about slowly after long processes of compromise and denial.  He felt the United Nations had published too many affirmations in recent years and that diplomats had shown too much confidence.  It now was the moment to doubt.

In his view, the planet’s regenerative capacity was essential.  Where damage was irreversible, a life-long error had been committed.  In advance of such failure, science could help understand the limits and thresholds for advancement.  Bolivia understood the need to put a break on speculation and the hunger for profit.  Markets were not useful in avoiding catastrophe; “we can’t combat pollution through the profit motive”, he said.

A panel discussion was part of the day’s interactive format, aimed at contributing to the Rio+20 Conference in June and commemorating International Mother Earth Day.

The panellists, a group of scientific experts, examined the evolving relationship of humankind with nature from their specialized perspectives.  They touched on the complex history of the planet.  It had taken hundreds of millions of years to form habitable surroundings, one noted, but far fewer to break them down.  In need of what he called “environmental consciousness”, he wondered how it would be possible to create harmony with nature when people did not live in harmony within societies.  The world was hanging in the balance, he said, warning:  “don’t let this cosmic ship sink perilously to the bottom of the sea.”

Standing in the way of living in harmony with nature were old habits and cultural patterns, unsustainable consumption and production, and “cognitive dissonance”, said another.  The “financialization of nature” was deemed extremely worrying in the presentations, and the point was made that, nowadays, a crisis of one affected many, meaning, said another panellist, “if I’m in it, you’re in it”.

In closing, Mr. Zukang urged Member States to adopt a holistic approach in negotiations on sustainable development, expressing his hope for “a focused political document” in Rio.  He stressed the need for a socio-economic development model “in harmony with nature” to ensure the “sustainable future we are all striving for”.  Mr. Thomson, borrowing the words of a panellist, said “science shows we are at a perilous point, and never before has more been asked of diplomacy”.

Interactive Panel

Moderated by Brian Czech, President of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, the panel entitled “Scientific findings on the impacts of human activities on the functioning of the Earth System” included presentations by:  Owen Gingerich, Professor of Astronomy and the History of Science at Harvard University; Mark Lawrence, Director of the Cluster of Sustainable Interactions with the Atmosphere at Max Planck Institute, Manz, Germany; Pat Mooney, Executive Director of the ETC Group, Canada; and Josh Farley, Fellow at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics and Professor in the Community Development and Applied Economics faculty, University of Vermont.

Launching the panel, Mr. GINGERICH said that in the first three minutes of the “Big Bang”, hydrogen and helium had been created.  There was no earth, air, or water, because the oxygen for their creation had not existed — the Big Bang was over before heavier elements had had a chance to form.  The carbon in the human body had been made slowly, in the “hellish caldrons” of still-forming giant stars.  Phosphorus, a centrepiece in human DNA, evolved later on, just short of 5 billion years ago.  “We’re all born of the stars,” he said.  “Our bodies are recycled star stuff.”  He said the Earth, in its early days, had been a barren, volcanic place.  Over time, water vapour spewed forth and condensed to fill the oceans.  Then, atmosphere had begun to form.  Early single-cell organisms converted carbon dioxide to oxygen, and gradually, had helped to form soil for the greening of continents.

“Our planet Earth has a history, and a complex one, that took hundreds of millions of years to form the habitable surroundings we have today,” he said.  Scientists now wanted to understand if life had formed elsewhere in the galaxy, but for 2 billion years, Earth life was so primitive that it offered few clues.  Such pursuits showed the contrast between the slow process of biological evolution and the rapid pace of cultural change.  Technological innovation was transforming the world at breakneck speed.  On top of that, human population was changing the environment, having already transformed nearly 80 per cent of Earth’s land surface.  Sixty vertebrate species in Hawaii alone had become extinct since the arrival of people.  Such was the competition between population growth and older environments.

Amid such change, the present age would be known for the greatest loss of biological species since the extinction of dinosaurs, he said.  Noting that the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking had just passed, he said the world, too, was on a great ship — the Earth cruising through outer space.  There was a risk it would be rendered uninhabitable, perhaps by events in the Holy Land, which would “radioactively quarantine” every faith, or by a “tipping point” reached in the Earth’s temperature that would irreparably destroy the regenerative capacity of forests.  Never had more been asked of diplomacy.  Never had so much hard and dedicated work been required.  “Our world hangs in the balance,” he warned.  “Don’t let this cosmic ship sink perilously to the bottom of the sea.”

Speaking next, Mr. LAWRENCE recalled that, in 1991, scientists wondered whether humans could travel to Mars, build factories to create greenhouse gasses and oxygen, and eventually, “green” the so-called “Red Planet” within 200 years.  It was a fascinating time, amid scientific awareness that the Earth was becoming inhospitable to humans.  People were seized with the idea of being prepared for crises — one that caught on so well it made the cover of Life magazine with the headline “Our Next Home”.  After the hype died down, questions arose about whether such pursuits were just an expression of misguided hubris.  How could people ponder such ideas when they did not respect the Earth enough to live in harmony with nature?  He had considered the “gray zone” between the promise and hubris of applied engineering and had seen the potential for living in harmony with nature.  Standing in the way were old habits and cultural patterns, unsustainable consumption and production, and “cognitive dissonance” — an irrational ability to talk ourselves into thinking things were okay when they were not.

Touching on the main components of the Earth’s system, he said ocean plankton produced dimethyl sulphide — a biological sulphur compound — which escaped to the atmosphere, where it was converted into sulphur dioxide and into particles important in cloud formation.  The more particles formed, the brighter the clouds, to reflect more sunlight and reduce the amount of light reaching the ocean surface.  That was an example of “negative feedback” in the system.  Positive feedback included the depletion of sea ice that led to warming.  Humans had several effects on the environment, as well.  Those included unintentional effects, stemming from activities undertaken for other purposes, such as energy production, which led to air pollution, and intentional effects, which were targeted towards environmental modification, such as urban development and large-scale agriculture.

Looking to future challenges, he urged examining the potential for nations to pursue targeted climate- or geo-engineering.  Those measures were divided into two categories:  those that removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and those that targeted planetary cooling.  Scientists were just starting to understand the risks and benefits of both.  The risks extended beyond the physical environment to understanding how such measures would influence “environmental consciousness”.  Scientists were working to develop holistic knowledge and could offer policymakers guidance on actions and consequences.  The unintentional and intentional human effects were so varied that no single indicator would be sufficient to capture them.  In framing the notion of “harmony with nature”, policymakers must accept that the world was in the Anthropocene geologic era.  He wondered how likely it would be to create harmony with nature when people did not live in harmony within societies.

Mr. MOONEY posed many questions about the role of technology in sustainable development.  He said biotechnology, nanotechnology and other new technologies had emerged out of what he called the “Little Bang” theory.  Scientists were no exception to “the rest of us”, who were caught up in the conflict between science and society.  “Do we have a clear understanding of science?,” he asked.  There was a view that technology could address problems, such as food shortages, disease and climate change.  For instance, some believed that food shortages and climate change could be taken care of, respectively, through genetically modified food production and geo-engineering.

He said there was no doubt that technology was important, a fact referred to repeatedly in the Zero Draft Document for the Rio+20 Conference.  But, technology had not been sufficiently assessed, and because of that, huge amounts of money had been wasted.  There was a vital need to identify technologies that were worth investing in, to ensure that funds yielded concrete results.  Today, societies were simply following “the next big thing”, he said, noting that a major chemical company recently announced it was withdrawing from the domain of biofuel, despite the fact that its investments up to now had been funnelled down that drain.

In that vein, he expressed regret over the fact that two United Nations institutions — the United Nations Centre on Transnational Corporations and the United Nations Centre for Science and Technology for Development — had ceased to exist in 1993, saying that the United Nations system had lost the capacity to assess technology.  He expressed cynicism about the “financialization of nature”, calling it “an insult to Mother Earth”.

Mr. FARLEY said most problems today had been caused by the endless pursuit of economic growth.  It was important to integrate science into economics so that economics would become more compatible with nature.  Indeed, the economic system was also a physical one, and thus, must be grounded in the laws of physics.  It was impossible to create something from nothing.  All raw materials available for economic production came from the earth, and the resources to be transformed into economic goods were finite.  To make that point, he said 86 per cent of the energy used today came from fossil fuels, whose rate of discovery had plunged drastically since the 1960s.  That meant the ability to produce was diminishing.

He said the transformation of environmental resources into economic products and the “spewing back” of waste was an inevitable part of economic production.  When the marginal ecological costs exceeded the marginal economic benefits, growth became “uneconomic”.  “We’ve reached that point,” he said.  An example of the “ridiculous” faith in technological innovation was seen in the theories of Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling, who said that agriculture and forestry constituted less than 3 per cent of total output.  Even if agricultural productivity declined by one third over the next half century, the per capita gross national product (GNP) that might have been achieved by 2050, would still be achieved in 2051.

He said, however, that never-ending growth assumed that the economy was the whole and the ecosystem a part in it, a notion that was fundamentally flawed.  The paradigm must be flipped to view nature as something that had no substitutes.  People did not understand enough about the life ecosystem to continually discard its parts.  Efficient markets allocated products to consumers who valued them the most.  However, if South Africa, for example, was to allocate water to those who could pay the most, rich people would be filling their swimming pools while poor people would be drinking from polluted rivers.  People valued allocating resources to those who possessed the most.  That perverse definition of efficiency must be changed.  The world was moving into a new era in which the crisis of one affected many.  “If I’m in it, you’re in it,” he said.  Cooperation would help solve ecological problems.

Rounding out the panel, Mr. CZECH said people often did not like to recognize the problems caused by economic growth.  “We think about it as the 800-pound gorilla,” he said.  There was a fundamental conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation.  Getting serious about environmental protection meant getting serious about “steady State economics”, which centred on conserving enough nature to support non-human species.  The discussion around technological progress should be framed in policy-relevant terms.  Progress stemmed from research and development, but research and development came from profits, or economic surplus.

In competitive economies, profits dried up except in firms that established a competitive advantage, he said.  But, advantage was often brought about by research and development — “a catch 22”.  Moreover, economies of scale increased productive efficiency by using existing levels of technology.  The pursuit of economic growth implied a continuous erosion of the nature allocated to non-human species — a point that was relevant to the Rio+20 discussion.  Without considering natural sciences, rhetoric would guide the thinking on natural resource use.

He pointed to Henry George, in that regard, whose influential Progress and Poverty treatise proposed a single tax on land at a time when neoclassical economics was being established.  An economic model between perpetual growth and perpetual recession existed, and it was the job of democracies to “muddle through” to find the optimal.  In thinking about supply, countries had missed the boat with their reliance on “landless” production.  They did not recognize that at the base of the “economy of nature” were true producers:  extractive companies that freed the hands of light manufacturers.  There was a fundamental trade-off between growth and conservation in that regard.  Encouraging markets for ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration and water purification, in turn, encouraged the expansion of the real money supply to engage with those markets.  That expansion eroded the base of nature.  Such tensions defined the so-called “trophic conundrum”.

In the ensuing dialogue, a delegate stressed the importance of a stronger science-policy interface and the importance of understanding the actual environmental costs of products and services, while another called on developed nations to change their patterns of unsustainable consumption and production.  Some speakers highlighted the importance of learning from ancestors and indigenous people, who knew what they deemed a sustainable alternative lifestyle.

Responding to the comment on science-policy interface, a panellist emphasized the need to review science education, as well as the education of scientists in communication.  Panellists touched on the importance of bringing geo-engineering into the heart of the debate in the lead-up to the Rio+20 Conference, as well as the need to maintain ecosystem services through united efforts of the rich providing money and the poor contributing land and other resources.

A delegate from the European Union participated in the discussion, as did the representatives of Chile (on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States), Ecuador, Spain and Cuba.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.