Monday, March 26, 2012

Don de Silva

The month before the London 2012 Olympics, another event will take place which will deal with more urgent issues, concerning the present and the future of the Earth. Unfortunately, this event has been by-passed by the information super highway.

The UN Conference on Sustainable Development, called Rio+20, will be held in Rio de Janeiro from 20 to 22 June. The conference aims to assess the implementation of the resolutions of the Earth Summit of 1992.

As a journalist, I attended the first UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, which put the environment issue on the world agenda and later worked for more than a decade with the United Nations Environment Programme and for many years with several international environmental NGOs.

We have witnessed immense progress in implementing environmentally sound practices. Today, there is a greater understanding of the links between environment and development. Sustainable development is a mantra among economic and finance ministers, who once thought that environmental considerations were a luxury we could not afford. Green jobs to tackle unemployment is a serious economic option. Recycling is big business.

Environmental diplomacy has led to the creation of new positive, political alliances like the Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP), the first regional environmental programme, initiated by UNEP. Over the last three decades Israel and countries like Libya have quietly, away from the glare of the world media, taken joint action to clean up the Mediterranean Sea.

In 1982, working at the UNEP Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, based in Bangkok, I was part of a major initiative in South Asia. Environmental issues motivated eight nations in the region – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – to establish the South Asia Cooperative Environment Programme (SACEP) – the first ever inter-governmental body in the region. SACEP was the precursor to SAARC – the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.

The Cinderella treatment given by most governments and the media to the preparations for Rio+20 give pause for concern. The banking and economic crisis has sapped the will to act on environmental issues. Governments have by and large, failed to deliver the commitments made at the 1992 Earth Summit.

Rio+20 does not promise to be a challenging event as the first Earth Summit was. It is presidential election year in the US. It is unlikely that the event will be attended by many Heads of State. The political fiascos of the Copenhagen Climate Conference are still raw in the minds of environmental decision-makers.

However, there is clear scientific evidence that time is running out in our ability to wisely use the Earth’s natural resources and biodiversity, upon which our livelihood depends. This scenario challenges all of us to rise above our differences and narrow concerns and respond to the reality that the future of human life on Earth depends on what we do, or fail to do.

Throughout the world, conflict over scare resources is escalating rapidly. Rio+20 as a unique opportunity to make the fundamental transformational change in the way we think and live. This will require a degree of common action, beyond anything we have yet experienced or imagined.

The decisions and policies, which determine our impacts on sustainability, are mainly motivated by economic and financial considerations. The environmental challenges at Rio + 20 will have to be rooted in our deepest moral and ethical values.

The United Nations cannot do it alone. Nor can the plethora of environmental non-governmental organisations dotted across the world. The environmental movement requires a seismic mind-shift. The same old, same old approaches of strategies, actions plans, projects and programmes have not fully worked. The movement is bogged down in a mire of bureaucracy. It has to re-discover the sparks of commitment that led to the globalisation of the environmental movement.

We must realise that the environment depends on the “in-vironment”, the inner values, which determine the way humankind uses the fragile resources of this planet.

If Rio+20 is to have any impact, spiritual and faith-based organisation will have get into the act. They will have to work together and lead in facilitating changes in life-styles and human behaviour to put the world on a path to sustainable living. The time for such organisations and movements has come. They will have to take on the root causes of the environmental and climate change crises. These are the same as those of the economic and financial crises, the inadequacies of our economic system and the profligate values, which govern the system.


During his career, Don de Silva was the Co-ordinator of Regional Information Programmes for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). These regions involved Asia and the Pacific, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe and North America. Currently, he is the Head of Programmes of IofC UK.

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.

All content on this web site, unless otherwise indicated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 License 2019