Roughly once each decade since the early 1970s, representatives of national governments from around the world have held major gatherings to tackle global environmental issues.

At the first of these meetings, June 1972 in Stockholm, governments agreed on 26 principles including: safeguarding natural resources “and especially representative samples of natural ecosystems,” the “elimination and complete destruction” of nuclear weapons, taking “all possible steps to prevent pollution of the seas,” planning “human settlements and urbanization with a view to avoiding adverse effects on the environment,” and eliminating “policies promoting or perpetuating apartheid, racial segregation, discrimination, colonial and other forms of oppression and foreign domination.”  

In 1982 governments created the Brundtland Commission. It released a report in 1987 called Our Common Future, popularizing the concept of “sustainable development.” This was followed by the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro (where governments adopted treaties on climate change and biodiversity), the 2002 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Johannesburg, and the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (also called “Rio+20”).

A cynic might wonder if all these meetings over the past 43 years have made any difference. The seas are more polluted than ever, nine nations still have nuclear arsenals, the Arctic is melting at an unprecedented rate, biodiversity loss continues unabated, and “foreign domination” remains widespread (using mostly economic as opposed to political means). 

A strong argument could made that we seem hell-bent on digging our children’s graves. But some refuse to lose hope. At the 2012 Rio+20 meeting, governments agreed to create global “sustainable development goals” (SDGs) that will be tabled for adoption at this fall’s UN General Assembly meeting. The global effort to adopt sustainable development goals has received virtually no attention in Canada, but other countries are actively consulting stakeholders as part of the process.

Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) has been slow to get the message that sustainable development matters to everyone, including Canadians. An online DFATD posting suggests putting the emphasis “on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable.” A critical op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen points out that “a key aspect of the sustainable development agenda for Canada will be addressing the ongoing marginalization and inequality faced by Aboriginal people.” Results of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission represent the foundation for a national dialogue acknowledging our own legacy of “racial segregation, discrimination, colonial and other forms of oppression,” and the starting point for a new era in our development as a nation.

Sustainable development integrates economic, social and environmental dimensions, so the 17 SDGs are not exclusively focused on environmental issues. That being said, many of them would be familiar to attendees at the 1972 Stockholm conference: conserve the oceans, seas and marine resources; protect and restore terrestrial ecosystems; make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable; and so on. A few new ideas have crept into the mix, such as addressing income inequality.

Some argue that 17 goals are too many: given limited funds, we should focus on a limited number of issues. This misses the point that sustainable development means integrating a full suite of economic, social and environmental considerations. This argument can also lead to endless bickering over which problems to tackle, given that each nation has its own unique set of priorities.

In a sense, the individual goals are unimportant. What really matters is that progress in solving economic and social problems — unemployment, poverty, income inequality, disease, terrorism, etc. — is inextricably linked to progress in solving environmental problems — water and food insecurity, biodiversity loss, pollution, etc. Tackling any problem in isolation wastes time and money. A great disservice is done by those who argue that environmental degradation is acceptable if it means greater economic growth. This argument is completely false: it is based upon an artificial and outdated concept of economics that considers goods and services provided by nature to be essentially worthless.

After the debate on SDGs at the UN General Assembly in New York this fall, governments will meet in Paris in December to tackle the biggest of all environmental challenges: climate change. The mood in New York may provide some clues as to how likely it is that countries will adopt measures strong enough to avoid a future of ever-worsening climate disasters — as if the current crop of floods, super-cyclones, droughts and other disasters isn’t bad enough. Scientists are warning, it’s now or never.

Optimism is always in order. SDGs provide a shared global vision of the planet’s future, guiding investments in education and infrastructure, and helping us understand how individual efforts can be part of a bigger picture of building a better world.

While the collective efforts of nations so far have achieved limited progress towards sustainable development, working together towards a common vision of the future is the only way forward.

Ole Hendrickson is a retired forest ecologist and a founding member of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley.

Photo: Credit: Speak Your Mind // Lachie McKenzie

Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson is an ecologist, a former federal research scientist, and chair of the Sierra Club Canada Foundation's national conservation committee.