UN Commission discusses ethics behind the environmental crisis

17 May 2011

— Focusing solely on the material aspects of the environmental crisis, while ignoring its moral and ethical dimensions, will not ensure humanity's long term survival.

That was among the perspectives under discussion at this year's UN Commission on Sustainable Development, held from 2–13 May.

"We have passed beyond the global tipping point that we have been anticipating for decades," Jeffrey Sachs – director of the Earth Institute and a special adviser to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon – told the Commission on 11 May.

"We are now living on a planet of environmental turmoil," observed Professor Sachs, noting an increase in the number of floods, droughts, and food and water shortages around the world.

"Fundamentally, we have a global ethics crisis," he said, because, "while we need to find a path towards sustainable development, we are scrambling instead for resources and advantage."

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Ashok Khosla, a former director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), also highlighted the need to recognize the values underlying sustainable development.

Gross Domestic Product "measures all the things that don't count in our real lives," said Mr. Khosla.

"Whatever it is we really care about – happiness and love – doesn't figure in the GDP at all," he said.

"Making the Invisible Visible"

A panel discussion – also held on 11 May and sponsored by the Baha'i International Community – sought to explore ways in which cultural, educational, and spiritual components can be brought into the sustainable development discourse.

Titled "Making the Invisible Visible: Values and the Transition to Sustainable Consumption and Production", the panel was moderated by Duncan Hanks of the Canadian Baha'i International Development Agency.

"There is no doubt of the importance of understanding and getting the material consideration of this discussion right – to adequately address the policy considerations, legal frameworks, financial mechanisms," said Mr. Hanks.

"However, to allow the discussion to focus merely on the material aspects...only covers part of the story.

"We are hearing new discussions and language about the dynamic coherence between the material and value-based or spiritual dimensions of sustainable consumption and production, between the hardware and the software – the physical and the spiritual – and we are witnessing an increased willingness to explore not only the policy and technical ramifications but the very values that ultimately influence attitudes and transform behaviours," he said.

Five other panelists from four continents offered thoughts about ways that the consideration of values can be brought into discussions about sustainable consumption and production, in order to motivate the changes in human behaviour needed to sustain life on the planet.

"The values debate is at the heart of what our future is going to look like," said Vanessa Timmer, co-founder and executive director of the One Earth Initiative, "Rethinking the Good Life".

She noted that values and behaviour are intimately connected, and that a discussion of values also frames the discussion – and the direction – of behaviour.

Researchers, said Ms. Timmer, have found that if the argument is made for buying a hybrid car on the idea that it will save money – instead of also saving the environment – the discussion is kept on material grounds.

"The idea is to use both – give numbers but embed them within a larger conversation about how this is going to help us move towards a new sense of community and affiliation with others," she said.

Victoria Thoresen of the Partnership for Education and Research about Responsible Living in Norway analyzed a series of specific values that have a bearing on sustainable development – including detachment, moderation, trust, justice, and hope.

The concept of justice, she said, "provides us with the possibility to move from the self-centeredness that dominates our world to a way of being, a mode of sharing, a way of moving beyond our complicated, confused world where hope barely exists."

Also on the panel were: Luis Flores Mimica, Consumers International, Latin American Office (Chile); Elona Hoover, Researcher, ESDinds Project: Developing Values-based indicators for Sustainable Development, University of Brighton (UK); and Kiara Worth, Sustainable Development Specialist (Papua New Guinea). The meeting was co-sponsored by PERL, One Earth, and Consumers International.

As another contribution to the discussion at this year's Commission, the Baha'i International Community called further attention to its 2010 statement, "Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism." See http://news.bahai.org/story/770.

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