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Many see science and technology as oppressive and uncontrollable forces in our society. They see in the power of science and technology the means of destruction in warfare, the source of environmental degradation, and the stimulus behind humanity's growing alienation. But science and technology have a different dimension as well. They are the key ingredients in our endeavor to fight poverty. They are also the key factors that permit us to tackle some of the vexing, even life-threatening global problems we face--climate change, loss of biodiversity, and the destruction of our marine environment (see Next Wave's recent feature for further information).

Clearly, science has influenced environmental choices and alternatives that we face today. In that sense, science has become a major factor in the human environment and its role is too important to be left to chance. It must not be forgotten that it is the environmental impacts of human behavior--impelled by developments in science--that are now seen to have global implications. These impacts are expressed in the changes that we see today in the composition of the air, the water, the soil, the biome. The way science is developed and applied will determine our future.

By its very nature, environmental science tends to be multidisciplinary in character. It is also a collaborative enterprise. Thus, though it is possible to investigate environmental relationships over a wide range of levels, the principal focus of this science is on relationships--relationships among human beings, other living beings, and the systems in which they exist.

The environmental focus in this kind of scientific enquiry demonstrates the ultimate unity of the subject matter of science. No other area of human concern has drawn a greater diversity of scientific disciplines into the service of a developing field of policy nor offered a greater scope for development of interdisciplinary collaboration as the environmental sciences.

Seen in this context, science and technology should be considered in their broadest sense. Science must be perceived to embrace both physical sciences as well as socioeconomic studies. Similarly, technology is no longer limited to the development and transfer of industrial technologies. The term embraces ideas such as information, management tools, and indigenous technologies.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was established in 1972, after the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, as the environmental conscience of the United Nations system. UNEP's mission is "to provide leadership and encourage partnerships in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing and enabling nations and people to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations." UNEP's role is to tell the truth about the health of the planet.

UNEP plays an important role in developing scientific knowledge on the state of the global environment. Its Global Environmental Outlook reports are an example of this enterprise. It also shares its knowledge and wisdom with other United Nations agencies such as the United Nations Development Programme, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations Children's Fund. UNEP also nurtures partnerships with major segments of the civil society.

UNEP recognizes that learning and training are fundamental for achieving a sustainable future. Today, the global community is faced with the need to make changes that touch the very core of its value systems, involving shifts in attitude and perspective in the way we view ourselves in relation to the environment, in the way we utilize and allocate resources, and in the structures and processes of our management systems. UNEP also acts as the sponsor for a variety of international conferences, programmes, plans, and agreements.

The twin challenges that we face today are overconsumption and poverty. Both threaten the world's environment--one by wasteful consumption and the other by unsustainable pressure on limited resources in the quest for sheer survival. The battle for a healthy human environment is still under way and is far from being won. Consider the following:

  • The healing of the ozone layer is associated with long time frames, even though the growth rates of CFCs have come down.

  • Excessive swings in the world's climate patterns include the potential of increasing global warming and sea level rise.

  • The scarcity of good quality water affects 1.3 billion people in developing countries.

  • Biological diversity is persistently threatened by an increasing illegal trade in wildlife estimated in the region of US$ 2 billion to 3 billion annually.

  • Land productivity continues to diminish due to topsoil loss, water logging, and salinization.

  • The implications on the environment due to increased globalization of trade are unascertained.

Social consequences of environmental degradation are also increasingly evident. There are over a billion impoverished people on this planet. There is a collapse in many parts of the world of the capacity of rural settings to provide a decent quality of life for its populations and a consequent mass migration into cities that are entirely unprepared and incapable of supporting even their existing populations. There are more refugees than ever before in history, many of them fleeing poverty and environmental degradation. Furthermore, there is evidence that unbridled competition over scarce resources may lead to conflicts, both internal and between states.

An obvious benefit of scientific inquiry is its ability to forecast future opportunities and risks as well as to explore ways to realize the former and avoid the latter. The need to foresee the probable consequences of human activities has generated new techniques for monitoring environmental change and for assessing the impact of present and proposed actions upon the natural and social environment. This has necessitated the formation of new linkages and relationships among scientific associations, national governments, and international organizations. Very few are aware of the extent, diversity, and complexity of an emergent science coordinated largely through the United Nations specialized agencies. This global network needs to be strengthened. I have no reason to doubt that it will affect the future of international environmental policy.

So, I invite young scientists the world over to join UNEP in its endeavor to create a healthy environment. Will we have to sink even more deeply into crisis before we begin to improve our destiny? At the conclusion of their book, For the Common Good, Herman Daly and John B. Cobb Jr. find hope in thinking that "on a hotter planet, with lost deltas and shrunken coastlines, under a more dangerous sun, with less arable land, more people, fewer species of living things, a legacy of poisonous wastes, and much beauty irrevocably lost, there will still be the possibility that our children's children will learn at last to live as a community among communities."