Cover Image
close this bookTaking Action - An Environmental Guide for You and Your Community (UNEP, 1995, 244 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAcknowledgements
View the documentForeword
View the documentPreface
Open this folder and view contentsPart I - The Foundation For Sustainable Action
Open this folder and view contentsPart II - Challenges and Opportunities
View the documentAppendix 1. Glossary of Environmental Terms
View the documentAppendix 2. Getting More Information
View the documentAppendix 3. Organizations to Contact
View the documentBack Cover


Unless we do something radical
today, we will be unable to do
anything tomorrow.

- Jacques Cousteau

In 1991, a publication jointly published by the World Conservation Union, the World Wide Fund for Nature and the United Nations Environment Programme proclaimed that humanity is at risk because it is misusing natural resources and pressing the Earth to the limits of its capacity. “We are now gambling with the survival of civilization,” warned the book, Caring for the Earth, in its preface.

In the years following this ominous warning, the planet is not in much better shape. The environment is in danger on nearly every front. Every time we pick up a newspaper, we read about something that is threatening our very existence, as well as that of other forms of life with which we share this planet. For example, every 24 hours, an estimated 150 to 200 species of life become extinct. During the same period, the human population on Earth expands by a quarter million. If it is not the ozone, it is global warming; if not that, then toxic and hazardous waste in our water. Our landfills are filling up so fast, we are running out of room in which to dump our rubbish. Our forests are disappearing at a rate too fast for them to be able to replace themselves. These are but a few of the many problems that are threatening the carrying capacity of our home, the Earth.

A Call for Sustainability

The idea of sustainability was first conceived in relation to the use of renewable resources, that an activity is only sustainable inasmuch as it can continue indefinitely. If a renewable resource is exploited and used faster than it can regenerate itself, the premise states, the resource will eventually be depleted and hence its use will not be sustainable.

Living sustainably means understanding and accepting the consequences of being a part of a greater community of life and becoming more conscious of the effects our actions have on future generations and the other species with whom we share this planet. Because sustainability is a relatively new concept, and often runs contrary to established paradigms of social and economic behaviour, ensuring that sustainability is in fact “sustainable” will require a new ethic of living. In order for it to succeed, “sustainable living” must also be the new pattern of all sectors and levels of society - individuals, organizations, communities, nations and the world. The new patterns must be promoted and accepted by youth, women, men, rural peoples, urbanites, religious organizations, and all other groups of which a society is composed. Adopting this new pattern of sustainability will necessitate a fundamental change in the attitudes and practices of many people, in each of these sectors. It will require that people adjust their lifestyles and adopt pursuits that respect and work within nature’s limits. Sustainability can be accomplished without rejecting the many benefits that modern technology has brought civilization, provided the technology works within those limits.

Sustainable Development

Sustainable development - development which improves people’s quality of life within the carrying capacity of the Earth’s life support system - must be our goal if we are to solve the current environmental crisis. Most approaches to development in the past have traditionally focused on the projected economic performance of a country and its physical infrastructure. As one of its central activities, development involved exploiting the environment in an attempt to make life easier, healthier and more prosperous for people. Unfortunately, as concern for economic performance began to outweigh other considerations such as the environment, development often became unsustainable; it sometimes led to the extraction of more from the environment than the environment was able to regenerate, and brought harm to the people it was meant to benefit.

In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development declared that development is sustainable only if it “meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

As outlined in different sections of this book, lack of development can be just as harmful to the environment as unsustainable development. People living in poverty often have no other choice but to engage in activities that could be considered environmentally harmful. We cannot expect a person to worry about global warming if he is worrying about feeding his family.

A Worldwide Movement

There is an unprecedented movement of citizen groups that are mobilizing to address issues of social and environmental concern. In the developing world there are now some 4,600 organizations from the developed world working side by side with approximately 20,000 indigenous non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Bangladesh alone has more than 10,000 registered NGOs. In Sri Lanka, the Sarvodala Shramadana movement has mobilized more than 8,000 villages to produce small-scale community improvement projects. In the Philippines, there are more than 21,000 community organizations that are working to improve the life and environment of that country. In Chile, there are 27,000 and in the neighbouring country of Argentina about 2,000.

This book is a contribution to this process of sustainable development and is dedicated to civil society. It is intended for community-based service organizations that are working toward solving environmental problems and establishing a sustainable relationship between their communities and the Earth. It is also for national and international organizations that want to undertake activities at the community level and with community involvement. Though the book is targeted primarily at organizations, individuals also should benefit greatly from reading it, since communities and organizations, after all, are made up of individuals.

Taking Action

As you read this book, you may at times feel overwhelmed by the idea that so much needs to be done. It may seem as if the world’s problems are so big that there is no way that one person or one organization could make a difference. You might think that reusing a plastic bag or recycling your newspaper is so trivial that it won’t change anything. The fact is, every person can make a difference, and collectively, an organization of individuals can make a big difference. Every group is comprised of individuals and the entire human population is made up of individuals and groups. It is up to you, and your community, to make choices and take actions that will solve the numerous problems that the planet is experiencing.

This book is UNEP’s challenge to you, and to the organizations of which you are a part, to make your contribution to the cause of sustainability. This book does not offer a panacea: the words are meant to be signposts - pointers to action that we must take if we are to achieve long-term sustainability. It offers some suggestions that will assist you and your organization to develop your personal and community action plans.

Human societies differ greatly in culture, religion, history, politics and traditions, as well as wealth, quality of life and environmental realities. Because of this vast dispersion of variables, the principles and action plans presented in this book are put forth in relatively broad terms, and are meant to be adopted and interpreted by each community based on its own unique circumstances. If the world is to achieve sustainability, it will not be through one path that all conform to; it will be through many different approaches that have been accomplished through continuous creativity, trial and error and the adaptation of the experience of others.

While this book was written and intended primarily for communities in the developing world, many of the approaches will be appropriate in both the developing “South” as well as the industrialized and developed “North.” It is becoming increasingly difficult to draw a firm and distinct line between these two sectors of the global society. There are many places in the North that are as poor and undeveloped as places in the South, and there are places in the South that could be considered developed and industrialized. Lastly, since some of the environmental problems now encountered in the South are associated with industrial technologies that originated in the North, many of the approaches to their solutions would be appropriate in both regions.

The book is divided into two parts. Part I presents The Foundation For Sustainable Action, and looks at general concepts, such as the global environment, the global economy, the role of communities and organizing for community action. Part II, Challenges and Opportunities, addresses specific environmental concerns, and suggests ways that different communities can make a difference.

The process through which this book evolved involved input, criticism and feedback from more than 100 people from numerous organizations, academic institutions and agencies of the United Nations. At an early stage, 30 individuals from around the world, each an expert with experience in different aspects of sustainable living, were flown to the headquarters of the UN Environment Programme in Nairobi, Kenya for a five-day intensive workshop to review the first draft of the manual. Their input was incorporated into a second draft, which was then sent to six “focal-point groups” around the world for yet more feedback.

The process, however, does not stop here. This manual will be updated with any inputs and feedback received after the first edition is published. Also, as science advances towards a better understanding of the world we live in, new discoveries and possible community solutions to environmental problems will be included in future editions.

It is hoped that this book will both inform and inspire. If we the people are going to create positive change in the world, we must make a commitment to do something. It all starts with the first step, or sometimes - the first chapter.