|United Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 12, Number 1, 1989 (UNU, 1989, 12 pages)|
The work of the United Nations University in the years ahead will be motivated by the heightened awareness that human activities are now capable of altering our world in unprecedented and sometimes frightening fashion. Human strivings for social and material progress are bringing about marked changes in the systems that support life on Earth. The UNU's research agenda for the closing years of this tumultuous 20th century will, among other tasks, attempt to anticipate the global trends that will shape the world of the next century. The following excerpt is from the Second Medium-Term Perspective (MTP II) of the UNU, for the years 1990-1995, which is based on the University mandate as expressed in its Charter. The six-year perspective, which was adopted by the University Council at its December 1988 session in Tokyo, will build on past UNU activities while responding to new needs and opportunities in the years ahead. This issue of WORK IN PROGRESS presents a selected look at the University's past, present, and proposed work on various forms of environmental degradation that threaten the planet's life-support systems. - Editor
The powerful forces now operating at the global level can only be understood and managed through collaborative effort and by incorporating the perspectives of diverse cultures and regions. It is necessary to recognize that this implies the need for a much higher level of awareness of the far-reaching effects of our actions. Individuals, communities and nations must increasingly take into account the fact that their actions may have impacts far beyond their immediate sphere of concern or influence and must also take responsibility for the consequences.
This, in turn, requires people to be fully involved in the decisions and strategies that are needed to deal with global changes resulting from these actions. Such participation is important for the young, particularly in the developing countries where a majority of the population is under 25 years old, and for women, whose role in providing for basic needs in the family and community is a significant factor in the development process. The crucial issue of social and environmental degradation caused by increasing poverty in the world also needs to be considered as part of our global responsibilities. The work of the University will therefore concentrate not only on understanding the nature of current trends and the responsibilities they impose, but also on how they are perceived and dealt with in various societies, social groups, and nations. An important component of the University's programmes in the 1990s will be a concern with strategies for integrating these emerging global responsibilities and imperatives for participation into policies and programmes of action at all levels.
A greater understanding of global change and the human capacity to respond should enable the University to discern some of the critical issues that many UN agencies and other governmental and inter-governmental organizations will need to deal with in the coming decades. One way the University could make a contribution is by creating a global alert mechanism that would assist people to recognize potential problems and provide an early warning of the need for policy change and preventive action.
Need for Multilateral Approaches
Greater concern for the world-wide impact of human activities is compelling nations, economies, and cultures to recognize their actual and growing interdependence. This recognition is a critical factor in working towards ensuring sustainable and environmentally sound development. Sustainable development entails responsibility for the consequences of our actions in this interdependent world, and it will therefore require the adoption of multilateral approaches to improving human welfare and managing humankind's relationship with the Earth. These approaches will need to be based on greater mutual understanding and a determined and collective search for solutions that take into account common interests as well as the rights of future generations.
Improved Access to Information
A basic requirement for the formulation of appropriate responses to global change is to consider different technical, cultural, political, and economic points of view and to invoke those affected by or contributing to this change. Improved access to relevant knowledge and information therefore becomes essential. Such broader access, moreover, is required to ensure that scientific advances and technological innovation contribute to economic growth without depleting natural resources. Restrictions on the flow of information are seriously limiting the advancement of science and technology, as well as hindering the understanding and management of global change.
International Academic Collaboration
The nature of the United Nations University as an international community of scholars and the manner in which its collaborative programmes and projects are implemented through networks of universities, research institutes, and individual researchers means that it depends on their commitment to provide the human and material resources' to carry out the work. In developing appropriate ways to ensure that its limited financial resources generate the maximum level of co-operation and commitment among its networks, the University will establish innovative institutional links, North-South and South-South exchanges of researchers, and other arrangements. One important means of improving academic collaboration with the University will be the creation of opportunities for closer ties with international scientific and scholarly organizations (such as those linking the UNU with the International Federation of Institutes for Advanced Study and the International Social Science Council in the human dimensions of global change programme).
Sustaining Global Life-Support Systems
In the past few decades, there has been a major shift in the scale of environmental problems: from those causing localized human-induced disruptions to the long-term and potentially catastrophic repercussions of global-level changes such as alternation of the chemical composition of the atmosphere and the widespread degradation of life-support systems - including loss of genetic diversity, accelerated soil erosion, deforestation, and chemical contamination of water and soil. The scale and extent of human activities that induce these changes now threaten the future habitability of the Earth. The contribution of prevailing forms of social, economic, and technological development to these changes underlines the urgency of directing this development so that it is environmentally sustainable.
The UNU's work in this area exemplifies its commitment to the notion of change and continuity. It will build on its previous work in such fields as development in mountain regions, agroforestry, and land use in the humid tropics. Research in tropical ecosystems will focus on techniques for sustainable productivity. (The proposed activities of the UNU's Institute for Natural Resources in Africa, expected to be established shortly with its operational centre in the Côte d'Ivoire, should constitute an important part of this last research focus.)
With human activities so central to global environmental change, collaboration with bodies like the International Council of Scientific Unions, the International Social Science Council, and the International Federation of Institutes for Advanced Study will be important steps in bringing together the work of both natural and social scientists. It is obviously essential to improve on current knowledge and understanding of the functions and processes of the components of the Earth's biosphere and physical life-support systems - and the University's contribution to this will build on its previous work on geophysiology and natural resources management.
At the same time, new research efforts will seek to broaden understanding of the human dimensions of global environmental changes - which is critical to our success in dealing with the anthropogenic causes of such change and its social and economic consequences. Research in this area will be aimed at promoting the broad public support and multilateral efforts that will be required to adopt strategies to mitigate undesirable impacts of these changes. The research will focus particularly on how to implement policies for dealing with environmental degradation and promoting sustainable development.
Improved Energy Use
The University's work in the energy field has up until now tended to focus on energy systems and planning. In the 1990s, the emphasis more and more will be on the impact of energy use on the global environment. This will include the study of technologies and policy options for environmentally sound, economically viable, and socially equitable uses of energy - especially those that help reduce deforestation and emissions into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels.
Legislating the Environment
Building on work initiated in past University projects, cross-sectoral aspects of global change, resource management and energy use will be stressed through the study of legal norms and institutions related to environmental management. This will include the role played by multilateral and non-governmental organizations and corporate enterprises. The work on international environmental law will include both its transnational and transgenerational aspects. (See "In Fairness to the Future," E. Brown Weiss, p. 12. - Editor)