Summer Conference 1999: Science, Ethics & Human Destiny

Governance and Vision: Will global interdependence be our destiny?

MAURICE STRONG, Chairman of the Earth Council

I will make my comments on sort of how to do it. I am, after all, a practitioner and not an intellectual.

The intellectuals of the world give we practitioners a challenge in terms of how do we translate some of these monumental challenges.

I’ve been trying in modest ways with a lot of only limited success over the years to deal with these issues. Maybe one learns more from lack of success than one learns from success.

Let me just mention a couple of the beliefs that I have formed of what we can do about these issues.

The first is that we are really the first generation in the history of humankind which literally is in command of our own future. Why? Because the scale and intensity of human activities and the level of human population have reached the point where literally we are now impacting on the very life support systems on which our future depends. We are changing the margins of the boundary conditions which make life on this Earth possible.

I missed the stimulating presentation which makes the case that we may not be alone in the cosmos and I must say that even mathematically it isn’t hard to come to the conclusion that there must be life elsewhere.

But the life we have to deal with is the life we have on Earth and it is a very precious and rare commodity, because if life exists elsewhere in the cosmos we don’t yet know about it. And we do know that in fact the conditions required to support life at the kind of level that we humans experience have only existed on this planet for a very minute portion of its geological history.

Therefore, we cannot take for granted that it will continue forever. We make the assumption that one way or the other we will muddle through. Really, that’s not very logical, particularly when we realize that we are now actually altering the conditions that make life possible.

Therefore, whether we like it or not we have to appreciate the fact that we are literally now in command of our future. We are the agents that are shaping that future. And I am deeply convinced that the future of the human species will be largely determined by what we do, or fail to do, in the next two generations and, more likely, in the next generation.

That doesn’t mean it will be all or nothing.

But, it does mean that the direction we take in shaping that future will be set in our times, or in the times of those younger people who will survive through the next generation.

So, we now have to face the awesome responsibility of managing our own future. We have some tools to manage the situation and one is, of course, information, and the ability to analyze, process and sort out the mountains of information available from those smaller amounts that are actually usable in taking our decisions.

The governance of human societies is the primary challenge of the 21st century.

That isn’t to say that the individual challenges represented in Ismail’s presentation are not important. As he says, it’s the whole system of issues, because the cause and effect system through which human actions and human policies impact on the forces that are determining our future are literally systemic in nature. Unfortunately, the institutions through which we attempt to manage them are not.

Governments are beginning to look at things through Cabinet committees and others on a more systemic basis. The disciplines are striving to break down the traditional barriers between the disciplines, but basically our life is still oriented around particular sectors and disciplines and we’re only beginning to realize that we have to develop a more systemic means of managing these challenges.

And how to do this in a world with the dichotomies that Ismail presented?

Yes, we hear complaints that money is scarce on the part of governments, money is scarce for some people. But we live in the wealthiest society in human history; undreamed about amounts of wealth and, yet still [see] the continuance of poverty at a level that is surely a moral affront to the values of our civilization. Surely this must be a challenge to the conscience of all of us.

While Mexico was having its [financial] crisis and the world was trying to help them bail out of it, there were more billionaires created in Mexico than were created in any other country in the world at that time.

There is one Mexican man who has more wealth and income than the bottom 15 million Mexicans. That kind of a world is not just but, more particularly, that kind of world will not be governable.

The basic premise of governability in our civilization is that all must share in it. We cannot manage the forces that are shaping our future simply on a national basis, on a sectoral basis or even on a corporate basis.

We must move into a management system in which we co-operate with others on an unprecedented scale, when the dominant ethos of our times is competition, self-interest, beggar your neighbour.

The institutions that emerged after the last war to try and ensure a more peaceful and equitable world have never been more needed and, yet, have not since their creation been less supported, both policy-wise and financially.

Co-operation is needed on a scale never before experienced.

We’re all proud to be Canadians, but we have to remind ourselves that we’re very much living on the capital – the international reputation that we have earned in past. Frankly, we are not earning it to the same degree today.

We have some very good leadership in Canada. I think Lloyd Axworthy is one of the best foreign ministers we’ve had in recent times. And there’s some very good people, but fundamentally we Canadians are not taking the generous attitude towards co-operation that we have in the past.

Frankly, there is no country that has a greater stake in a stable, secure, viable manageable world community than Canada. And the world community needs it.

We have a neighbour, a powerful neighbour, a good neighbour, but a neighbour that’s in danger of becoming the rogue elephant of the world community.

I often ask my friends abroad, who criticize the United States, what country would you prefer to have in the dominant role: China, Russia, France, Germany?

That usually stops the discussion, but it does not get away from the very worrying fact that there are tendencies in the United States towards isolation, towards dominance, towards lack of empathy, lack of concern for those who are the victims of globalization, the underprivileged, those who are left out.

And those tendencies really threaten the whole process by which we have to try and manage co-operatively our future.

It is not just the fact the United States is withholding its contributions to the United Nations for reasons extraneous to the UN itself, although those do obviously manifest also the lack of support for any international organization that is not a mere instrument of the United States on the part of some of the more isolationist and extreme elements in the U.S. Congress, which incidentally represent similar constituencies in the U.S. population.

So, we do have a powerful neighbour that we’ve learned to live with, but that powerful neighbour – as Ismail said very well – is really running the world today.

And the same country, the United States that literally invented the major multilateral institutions through which we try to govern ourselves internationally, is now the greatest threat to them, bypassing them, using them only when their narrow, national interests dictate it.

They did find out in Kosovo, however, that they could start a war without the United Nations, but it was not really feasible to settle that conflict without the United Nations.

Having said that, the United Nations has the best leadership it’s had, perhaps, ever, in Kofi Annan. Yet, at the same time it is more vulnerable to deterioration than it has ever been since its creation, because international co-operation today, necessary as it is, is no longer really flowing through the instruments that were created to manage the processes.

I want to mention one aspect of this that is very important. I was asked to mention the civil society component. That’s not difficult. We have to remind ourselves that power vests in the people. That in fact civil society is really the source, ultimately, of all the processes and attitudes and pressures that drive governance, whether it be official governance or other private sector mechanisms of governance.

Today, we need the public sector organizations – national governments and international organizations – to provide the basic framework, the legal framework, the regulatory framework, the leadership framework within which the other actors can do their thing.

Today, for example, some of the development assistance agencies of the private sector have far greater budgets. UNEP,[United Nations Environment Program , which did such a fine job of managing under difficult conditions has a budget that is only one-quarter that of the World Wildlife Fund. That’s just one non-governmental organization.

In the humanitarian field, many non-governmental organizations have budgets bigger than the UN organizations, but they still can’t do it without the UN. The UN has to provide that basic framework that permits them to work together, that legitimizes and validates their presence in international situations.

And so we have to strengthen these organs, but we have to also bring the civil society organizations in – not just to consult – but recognizing that they are actors and they are often the main actors. An article in Foreign Affairs – I think it was two summers ago – compared the rise of civil society in this century to the rise of the nation state in the last century.

Civil society prepares the way and drives political action, as it did in the environmental movement. Governments really responded to public pressures, generated largely by what we now refer to as civil society.

Most major political movements today are driven by the private sector; driven by not only business, but driven by civil society and people’s attitudes.

There is hope. It’s still feasible, but we have to develop the spirit of co-operation and the basis for respect for each, the basis for sharing with each other. Sharing and caring with our brothers today is not only just a pious ideal, divorced from reality; it is an indispensable ingredient for shaping our common future.

We cannot shape our future without those who are left out. If they are left out of the benefits of modern civilization, they are not going to participate with us in the things that we have to do together and that we cannot do without them to shape the future of our civilization.

We can’t do it without them and we can’t expect them to go along with us if they’re worried about how they’re going to survive the next day. But, they will not join hands with us, won’t be able to join hands with us unless we create a more equitable basis for allowing them to benefit from the wealthiest and most powerful and most creative civilization ever. They cannot be left out, or frankly, we will not be left in.

We have to learn how to develop a much more equitable means of sharing the benefits of our technological civilization, if we want to ensure that that civilization continues to nourish the hopes and aspirations of those who follow us.

I’m not a pessimist in the sense that I believe that Doomsday is inevitable, but I do believe that if we do not take seriously the possibility that human civilization as we know it may not survive this next century, if we do not take that seriously and respond to the challenge that that presents to us, Doomsday may well be our destiny as a species.

That doesn’t mean all life’s going to come an end. But our civilization as we know it is in peril and I can’t say I am all wise, but in terms of trying to assess the information and knowledge and analysis that have come to me through the various public affairs jobs I’ve been privileged to have , I have to say at this stage of my life I do believe the human future is going to be settled in the next century and the next two generations.

That is an awesome responsibility for those of us who still have some place in manipulating the levers through which these processes are managed. We’ve all been working on implementation; how to do it.

I am concerned with the motivational issue; we are not spending enough time on the motivational side on the issue.

I’m glad that the theme of this conference emphasizes ethics, because at the deepest level people act, not just in accordance with their immediate economic interests, they act in accordance to their deepest ethical and values. Societies act that way. People act that way. And we need to recognize that we have to develop a common set of values for our own survival.

We don’t have to share every value, every idea. But we do have to have a common basis that we can share with everyone; a certain set of ethical and moral principles which can guide the behaviour of people towards the Earth and towards each other. That’s why I’ve been spending a lot of my time promoting the Earth Charter.

The Earth Charter is a kind of – in Anglo Saxon terms – a Magna Carta for the Earth; a statement of ethical and moral principles to guide the behaviour of people towards each other and toward the Earth.

We failed to get it in Rio and now we’re trying to make it into a peoples’ Earth Charter and a number of Canadians are joining that process. We have the means, the richest civilization, [but] most of those means are in private hands today, though, rather than in government’s hands.

But we have the means if we have the will. And we’ll have the will if we really understand how our actions and behaviour is in fact determining the future of those who follow us.

Couchiching Online History Table of Contents 1999 Summer Conference