Previous Fora / 2003

Knowledge, environment and development

Knowledge, environment, development

Mohamed T. El-Ashry
Former Chairman, Global Environment Facility, Egypt /United States



Francis Bacon wrote that knowledge is power and the invitation to this conference states that science and knowledge are our major assets. It is true that we have gained enough knowledge in our brief existence on earth to guide our journey into a sustainable future. But that powerful knowledge has not yet been fully harnessed to move us beyond awareness into action, and reverse current environmental trends.

Humanity, greater in number and more economically active with each passing day, is increasingly playing havoc with Earth's natural systems. Our actions are giving rise to a multitude of critical threats: the degradation of soils, water and the marine resources essential to food production; health-endangering air and water pollution; global climate change that is likely to disrupt weather patterns and raise sea levels everywhere; the loss of habitats, species and genetic resources which is damaging both ecosystems and the services they provide; and the depletion of the ozone layer.

Sustainable development means that people can make their living without destroying the natural resources and ecosystems necessary for meeting their needs and for supporting the diversity of other life on the planet. These are the principles of sustainability that were accepted by all nations at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 and reaffirmed in Johannesburg in September, 2002.

In this context, the question we must now ask ourselves is this: in the face of 90 million additional people being added to our global village each year, how can we ensure sustainable development by bringing economic growth and environmental protection into harmony? What will it take to protect our biological heritage, avoid devastation from climate change, sustain the soil and water that give us life, protect human health, and reduce the scourge of poverty and hunger? How do we summon and perpetuate the necessary political will?

The scientific complexity of underlying problems and of potential solutions requires close links at all levels between the institutions set up to administer global environmental conventions and the scientific community. Unfortunately, disparities between countries of the North and South in the generation of scientific information and its use make it difficult for the South to participate fully in actions for global sustainability. We all know that science can help feed the hungry, improve health conditions, and enhance environmental protection. But will the science and technology help relieve the disparities?

In many ways, we have entered one of the most creative phases in human history. Science, technology, and communications are advancing at breathtaking speed and offering unmatched opportunities for responsible action. We have new tools and a vastly increased understanding that our strength lies in working together across the globe to overcome the threats facing the planet. Interdependence means that all of us, whatever the stage of our development, are traveling in the same boat, floating and sinking together.