‘The damage on the sustainability of our planet’
It's a question many people have probably asked themselves, seeing
the ever-increasing environmental degradation around the world: why
aren't we doing more to protect our planet? And it's not that easy to
answer, as it seems such an obvious course of action, given the parlous
state the Earth is in. But Achim Steiner has an answer of sorts. He
thinks things are so bad that people can't quite grasp it.
He is worth listening to, because there are not many individuals who
could be said to have a truly comprehensive overview of the state of the
This 50-year-old Brazilian-German is the executive director of the
United Nations Environment Programme (Unep), the part of the UN family
that deals with planetary ills, and he has spent a long career trying to
help communities across the world to develop, without trashing their
surroundings and their natural resources base. In other words, without
screwing up their future.
Sustainable development, it is called. For more than 20 years it has
been thought of as a great idea whose time has come. So why is so much
of what is happening on every continent still clearly so unsustainable?
“In a sense .... reality has overtaken our cognitive capacity,” Steiner
says. “I mean the reality of it has overtaken our capacity to understand
it, to understand quite what we are causing and unleashing, almost ... I
think we have not even begun to understand how serious are the
underlying trends that we have brought to bear on the sustainability of
“A classic illustration is the ... luxury of this continued debate
about scientific uncertainty with climate change. If even 10 per cent of
what the IPCC [the UN's Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change] said
were to come true, it should actually make us sit up and say
immediately, ‘change course!'.”
But we don't say that, Steiner believes, because “there is an
accelerating set of trends, from the atmosphere to the biosphere, to our
ability to feed ourselves in a world which will soon have nine billion
people, that gives us a sense of what will happen in the next 20, 30, 50
years, that we have simply not yet begun to appreciate”.
He can see the trends, quite clearly, because it is his job to, and
he talks about them vividly: agriculture which is no longer “a
management of that one metre of arable land on which we depend for
virtually everything that grows” but a process which “very often has
become a mining operation”; oceans which have been over-exploited to the
point where “two-thirds or more of the fish stocks are either at maximum
offtake or actually depleting”; carbon dioxide pumped into the
atmosphere “to the point where we are actually fundamentally changing
the climate prospects of our planet”.
It is the fact that we have got our hands on everything, humans are
grabbing everything, and we still do not realise the extent of our grab.
In his words: “That notion, of realising that actually we as human
beings have moved from somewhere in the food chain, to be right on top
of it in planetary terms, is something we have not yet grasped.
“And partly it is a luxury, because it is much easier not accept that
reality, because then you really have to take responsibility; and we are
at the moment avoiding taking responsibility. Individually as much as
Yet Steiner is no misanthropist; he is not one for scolding, like a
hell-fire preacher; he does not think people are the problem. Just the
opposite: he is a convinced humanist and has spent his life in
development, focusing on the poorest countries and how they can grow
their way out of poverty.
The way forward is to combine economic growth with respect for the
environment, in that powerful concept of sustainability. Yet it is not
A major conference in Brazil this June will try to find out why not –
20 years on from the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, which set out a
sustainable development agenda for the world, one that was never taken
Mr Steiner will play a key role in Rio Plus 20, as the new summit is
labelled. Last week there was a preliminary conference in London which
he came to address.
He spans worlds, particularly the developed and the developing: this
is a man who went to a Brazilian village school (the son of a German
farmer who had emigrated to Rio Grande do Sul) and then read philosophy,
politics, and economics at Oxford University. He looks like a banker
and, indeed, would be perfectly equipped to be the head of JPMorgan or
perhaps even more, of a giant corporation such as Volkswagen. Yet he
went from Oxford not into a management training scheme but to a small
village charity in Tamil Nadu, helping the poorest of India's poor, and
has spent much of his career in the world's most deprived regions, from
Pakistan to Zimbabwe.
Combining toughness with a genial approachability, he has run
Nairobi-based Unep for six years. His tenure has indeed given him a
panoramic overview of the state of the planet but it has not shaken his
belief that doing things in a different way is possible. “I am always
reluctant to be a sort of doomsday-scenario person,” he says.
“Yes, I am aware of the trends, but I am committed to using that
knowledge not as a kind of ‘aren't we awful and terrible’ message but,
rather, to ask how can we continue doing this when we actually have a
choice, the means, the technology, to change course.
That's the motto of our era. We are able, and we must change course.”
After hearing his chilling and convincing litany of the planet's
problems, I doubted if he could be an optimist, but when I asked him, he
said at once: “Yes, I'm an optimist, otherwise I would not do this job
now.”What, even in the face of watching the world going to hell in a
“Yes, because I think we have enough examples in history where people
have changed course, and there are good reasons to believe that we can
do it now. I think we are losing time, but I don't think that's a reason
to lose hope.”