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close this bookUnited Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 12, Number 1, 1989 (UNU, 1989, 12 pages)
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentSustaining the Earth
View the documentAnticipating global trends: Aspects of UNU work for the period 1990-1995
View the document'An uncontrolled global experiment...'
View the document'A little breathing space': Report from the Budapest
View the documentEnergy savings: Sooner much better than later
View the document'The rich get richer...'
View the documentOld wine in new bottles?
View the documentTectonics of the desert cities
View the documentMan in the mangroves
View the documentDiverting the Nile
View the documentLosing the soils of Africa
View the documentIn fairness to the future

Sustaining the Earth

The Threat to the Globe's Life-Support Systems

Of all the dangers which lurk on the road to the 21st century, the most threatening could well be ourselves: the myriad daily acts by which, wittingly or unwittingly, we are fouling our own nest, the Earth.

In increasing scale and sweep, human activities are disrupting - in some cases perhaps irreversibly - the systems that support all life on our planet. They are contributing to the igniting of new large-scale political, social and cultural upheavals in a world that is simultaneously undergoing immense social changes. One estimate, for example, shows that the biggest single category of refugees is now made up of people fleeing large-scale environmental degradation that has made it virtually impossible for certain communities to continue their existence.

Nature, Barbara Ward wrote, constantly reminds us of humanity's basic unity: perhaps no other process so forcefully drives home the reality of our global interdependence as does the infinitely complex and fragile interweavings of environmental systems. In the damage we may be doing to such system, we are confronting our shared responsibilities for maintaining our common home.

Over the centuries, and in all parts of the world, the human race has lived on a seemingly inexhaustible supply of resources drawn from the soil, the sea, and the sky. But in recent years - notably since the dramatic upsurge in technological capabilities in the latter half of the 20th century - the rate at which we have been taking from nature is greater than that at which it can replenish and reinvigorate its life-support systems.

The kind of environment the world will have is essentially a political and a cultural issue, not a technological one. It has been posited by some that ultimately it will be the small day-to-day decisions by individuals, not the big scientific breakthroughs, which will count the most. Decisions, for example, such as those by millions of individual farmers and villagers to cut down another tree to feed and shelter their family. It is necessary to find ways to incorporate the reality of such decisions - which touch intimately on daily human existence - into scientific and technological planning at a higher level.

The process of change now underway is in large part an immense unrolling of human aspirations which is overtaxing humankind's capacity to respond. The research agenda of the United Nations University for the 1990s seeks to contribute to determining the root of these often frightening processes of change and help cope more rationally with them. The UNU agenda, ranging across a broad spectrum of human concerns - peace, poverty, the economy, the environment, the impact of new technologies - is grouped into five major clusters of interrelated forces and trends at work in these closing years of the 20th century.

This issue of WORK IN PROGRESS reviews the efforts of the University to deal with one of these clusters: sustaining global life-support systems, Future issues will deal with the UNU's work in the other areas. Some of the considerations that governed the University's future planning are outlined in selections from the UNU's Second Medium-Term Perspective for the years 1990-95 on page 2.

Studies of environmental questions, by both natural and social scientists co-operating in the UNU networks, have been underway for some years now. Others are just beginning to unfold.

One major endeavour is the programme on human dimensions of global change (HDGC), which is being conducted jointly with the International Federation of Institutes of Advanced Study and the International Social Science Council. (The term "global change" is convenient shorthand for describing the sweeping impact of human actions on the planet's biosphere and geosphere.) To run through the 1990s, the effort attempts to bring a world-wide social science perspective to environmental and ecological concerns that have heretofore been largely the province of the natural sciences. The HDGC programme is seen as complementary to the efforts of natural scientists, in the International Geosphere/Biosphere Programme of the International Council of Scientific Unions, to improve understanding of the global environment. An important step in getting the work underway was the organization of an international symposium on the Human Response to Global Change at the UNU Tokyo Centre in September 1988. Several of the selections in this issue reflect the thinking and contributions at that week-long meeting.


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In his keynote address to the Tokyo symposium, Dr. Ian Burton, one of the driving forces in the HDGC programme, said that we are as yet just short of scientific certainty in the alarming predictions of climate warming, ozone layer depletion, sea level rise and so on. But our degree of reliability about such threats already far exceeds that on which many day-to-day policy decisions - about the stock market, trade directions, etc. - are now made. If no reaction is made to such reliable predictions, human society's attitude would fall outside laws of normal prudence.

Surely one of the most frightening of these predictions is the fairly imminent onset of the so-called "greenhouse effect" - the increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, resulting from burning fossil fuels and other actions, which could trap the sun's infrared radiation close to the Earth's surface and cause global temperatures to rise. The warming could conceivably alter food chain systems throughout the world with potential for almost incalculable human suffering. We may have left only "A Little Breathing Space" - which was the title of an HDGC workshop on possible strategies for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, held in Budapest in April of this year. The workshop was hosted by the Institute for World Economy of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Some of the greatest damage to our environment results from the sometimes desperate search for energy - indeed, in many parts of the world, exploiting the environment for its wood and other fuels is a survival practice. In wealthy countries, however, opportunities for conserving energy are great - yet often untapped. In the paper he presented to the symposium in Tokyo, Robert Ayres of Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh (USA) argued the case for improved conservation in the United States, one of the most conspicuous energy-users.

The battle to maintain delicate ecosystems must be waged in conjunction with the equally important - and very much interlinked - fight to eradicate poverty. Very frequently, those who enrich themselves through exploiting resources deplete the resources in a manner that causes ever greater poverty. A team of Latin American ecologists and sociologists explores this vicious circle in excerpts from their Tokyo symposium paper.

The UNU's present environmental studies are very much grounded in its earlier research experience in both the social and natural sciences. As part of its examination of human rights questions, for example, the UNU organized a workshop dealing with legal aspects of certain newly developed resources - like the vast reaches of space, the depths of the sea, or the domains of radio frequencies. In excerpts from a paper he presented at a 1982 conference in The Hague, James Rosenau discusses issues arising from such new natural resources - and the institutional "bottles" in which they might be contained.

Some of the severest environmental strains are occurring in the world's arid lands. Fed by swelling populations, cities everywhere are spreading into desert areas of the world - an urban "dryland fraternity" whose disparate members include San Bernardino (California), Volograd, Riyadh, Delhi and Beijing. The implications of these new, constantly shifting, "tectonics blocks" of population are discussed by a team of British geographers in an excerpt from their UNU book on urban geomorphology.

Africa has some of the planet's richest natural resources - and a good deal of its most sorely exploited. Responding to this situation, a major UNU effort now underway will establish an Institute for Natural Resources in Africa (INRA); it will assist the continent's scientists in pooling and maximizing their expertise. Three selections in this issue further demonstrate the UNU's environmental commitment to that continent. They discuss: exploitation of the mangroves in Tanzania; the environmental impact of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt; and soil degradation in the Ugandan highlands

Finally, this issue also looks ahead and assesses our obligations, particularly legal ones, to future generations. Edith Brown Weiss argues that our legal institutions and processes have the potential to slow the rate of environmental ravage - but only if we can learn how to use such instruments wisely. Otherwise, we could well trigger enormous, unwanted, and irreversible damage to the only world we have to pass on to our children.