The UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Global Sustainability has just released its final report (“Resilient People, Resilient Plant: a future worth choosing“). The panel, which was chaired by Tarja Halmen, president of Finland, and Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa, took an appropriately broad view of sustainability, looking at measures of human development, as well as environmental and natural resource indicators. And not surprisingly it paints a mixed picture. While highlighting progress with respect to a number of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), it also notes the continued deterioration in many of the resources and biosystems on which continued human progress depends.
Most importantly, it acknowledges that the current human trajectory is not sustainable, and it warns that, “The signposts are clear: We need to change dramatically, beginning with how we think about our relationship to each other, to future generations, and to the eco-systems that support us….Continuing on the same path will put people and our planet at greatly heightened risk.”
The report makes 56 specific recommendations, a number of which deserve special recognition, including support for expanding family planning and reproductive health options, incorporating sustainability considerations into national strategic planning, creation of a Sustainable Development Index, improvement in gender equity, and the development of a set of “sustainable development goals” similar to the MDGs.
But perhaps the most noteworthy part of the report is its recognition of the need for a people-centered approach to sustainable development. The report stresses that we need to empower people to make sustainable choices. And that certainly applies to the need to empower women to be able to decide the number and spacing of their children.
Today’s report is a welcome contribution to the growing global debate over sustainability, but the real test will come in June, when world leaders assemble for the Rio+20 Summit. We need a strong and renewed commitment from world leaders to sustainability. Without it, it appears unlikely that the human trajectory will change in time to avoid the real life consequences that flow from living unsustainability. Indeed, we are already struggling with some of those consequences: climate change, falling water tables, depleted fish stocks, etc. The question is whether reports such as this one will spur us to move decisively to avoid far more serious damage to people and the planet.
Posted by Robert J. Walker, president of the Population Institute