- Mounting evidence reminds us how human actions have begun changing the climate and forced an awareness of global warming’s impact on the quality of human life. That awareness will be top of mind for participants in the 72nd Regular Session of the UN General Assembly taking place in New York City this week.
- General Debate in the assembly this year considers the theme of “Focusing on People: Striving for Peace and a Decent Life for All on a Sustainable Planet.”
- That topic deliberately invites discussion about the inter-connectedness of all the world’s people and our dependence on a shared planet if we are to thrive and prosper.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors.
Mounting evidence reminds us how human actions have begun changing the climate and forced an awareness of global warming’s impact on the quality of human life. That awareness will be top of mind for participants in the 72nd Regular Session of the UN General Assembly taking place in New York City this week.
General Debate in the assembly this year considers the theme of “Focusing on People: Striving for Peace and a Decent Life for All on a Sustainable Planet.” That topic deliberately invites discussion about the inter-connectedness of all the world’s people and our dependence on a shared planet if we are to thrive and prosper. A critical dimension of this is our collective responsibility to sustain the integrity of the natural ecosystems upon which our aspirations for peace and a decent life for all depend.
As many human societies have changed over millennia from hunter-gatherers to farmers to city dwellers, we have increasingly become less directly connected to nature. As we consume more and more things not produced in our backyards, it becomes harder and harder for us to see how the way we chose to live impacts the health of our planet.
As a result, we have generally shown little regard for how our decisions in pursuit of a better life are affecting others in our generation and in generations to come. With so many natural resources that we depend on teetering on the edge of collapse due to our profligate habits, we must change our perspectives and – especially – our actions before it is too late. Ignoring this challenge or kicking the can down the road for the next generation are no longer tenable options.
We might take a page from the philosophy of the Iroquois Confederacy, for whom decisions made today must pass the test of avoiding an adverse impact to the wellbeing of people seven generations in the future. We should steward wisely the only planet we have or – at the very least – leave it no worse than we inherited it.
There is no doubt that today a far smaller proportion of people live in abject poverty than at any other time in our evolution as a species. At the same time the planet is now home to over 7 billion people. That is 23 times the population 2000 years ago, and over 1500 times the human population before the advent of agriculture approximately 10,000 years ago.
Our modern lifestyles are transforming our planet in ways it would have been impossible to imagine even a century ago: through the harvesting of wild plants and animals; through our conversion of natural lands and waters into ecologically simplified places to grow things we need; and through our combustion of fossil fuels to illuminate and warm our homes, transport us and the commodities we want, and even burn the stuff we throw away.
We have felled about 35 percent of the earth’s forests and degraded more than 80 percent of those that are still standing. We have turned half of all grasslands into fields and livestock pastures. We have fully fished, or overfished, about 90 percent of global fish stocks, and are driving other animal and plant species to extinction at over 1,000 times the natural “background” rate of 1-5 species per year.
And since the 1750s, our appetite for coal, gas and oil has increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from 280 parts per million to greater than 400 ppm – raising global temperatures, melting glaciers and sea-ice, and warming the oceans that are now more acidic because of all the CO2 they have absorbed.
While we have achieved a decent life for many, we have undermined the quality of life for many others and degraded the ability of the planet to continue to support us. Transforming the dwindling forests, grasslands, rivers, lakes, and reefs that remain largely untouched will not help us to overcome the obstacles to decent lives. Rather, it will jeopardize our shared endeavor to prosper as a species.
We must strongly encourage our world leaders to draw on what we know but are denying – that human actions now threaten our survival. This reality must inform their participation in the upcoming General Debate as well as their day-to-day approach to decision making when they return home. They can begin by viewing the loss of nature as a debit not a credit in their national systems of account, and by doing so halt the transformation of the world’s remaining natural ecosystems.
Most of all they should consider the wise counsel of our former president-conservationist Teddy Roosevelt, who noted that while it is “the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land…I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.”
Michael Painter is a senior technical advisor and David Wilkie is Executive Director of Conservation Measures and Communities at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).