State of the Planet 2004


Statement of the State of the Planet 2004: Mobilizing the sciences to fight global poverty

Science to build a prosperous and sustainable future for all

For two days, scientists from around the world gathered at Columbia University to examine the relationship between the human condition and the condition of the Earth. Focusing on four essential determinants of human well-being-energy, food, health and water - these leading experts assessed how science and technology can best be mobilized to achieve sustainable development. The development challenge is to enable the poor to meet their basic needs for energy, food, health, and water, recognizing that these needs are also human rights under international law and long-standing international commitments of both the rich and poor nations. The Millennium Development Goals, agreed by all of the world's governments, are critically important poverty reduction targets to be met by the year 2015. The sustainability challenge is to achieve development while protecting the world's ecosystems, ensuring that economic activity does not undermine the biodiversity, climate and other natural processes on which our security, well-being, and life itself, depend. These scientists have identified areas for priority action as well as new research initiatives.

The recommendations that follow are based on consensus achieved among a broad cross section of these experts, and are meant to help policy makers and the public understand the scientific underpinnings in several critical areas of sustainable development. In addressing these issues, the conference participants recognized the stark contrasts of the challenges facing the rich and poor. In the poorest countries, where an estimated 800 million people are chronically hungry and where extreme poverty leads to some 20,000 avoidable deaths per day, meeting basic human needs has first priority. Providing safe energy for cooking, clean water for drinking and sanitation, sufficient food for basic nourishment, and systems for disease control and prevention are paramount and urgent global challenges, in which the high income countries will need to help the poorest. Environmental degradation in these places is often both a direct cause and consequence of the struggle to meet basic needs on a daily basis, as when poor rural households cut down forests to clear land for farming or to harvest fuel wood for cooking. Women typically face the greatest burdens of this daily struggle for survival, and often suffer the added hardships of legal and social discrimination.

In the rich countries, where basic human needs are exceeded by a very wide margin, the pursuit of increasingly affluent lifestyles also has broad and pervasive impacts on Earth. By loading the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, the high-income countries are making a dangerous contribution to long-term climate change, with potentially dire risks for societies both rich and poor in all parts of the world. Maintaining and indeed improving the standard of living in the developed world without irreversibly depleting global resources and altering natural systems is the rich world's sustainability challenge.

The world therefore faces multiple and complex challenges: extreme poverty and the environmental degradation causing and resulting from poverty, as well as pervasive environmental consequences of affluence that must be brought under control. Ecosystem resilience and stability, which sustains healthy human communities, must be maintained through environmentally sustainable practices in energy, food, water and health management. The scientists have therefore aimed to identify paths of sustainable development, which will permit the poorest of the poor to improve their lot decisively, while permitting the rich to enjoy improvements in living standards as well, but in both cases in a manner that protects the environment and the vital services of the Earth's ecosystems.

These problems are amenable to human solutions, but only under four circumstances, which constitute over-arching recommendations of the scientists.


    1. The rich countries must help the poor countries to escape from the trap of poverty, consistent with international obligations of international assistance and cooperation. The first step in this effort should be to meet the Millennium Development Goals, the internationally agreed targets for poverty reduction by the year 2015. The needed financial assistance from the rich countries is of crucial important for poverty reduction but is modest in size relative to the income of the rich countries, within the international target of 0.7 percent of rich-world GNP in official development assistance.

    2. Both rich and poor countries must heed the lessons of science and foster the benefits of under-utilized and yet-to-be developed technologies. We must support increased national and international scientific and technological efforts to achieve technological breakthroughs in energy systems, food production, health care, and water management. Not only must we make a special effort to address the technological needs of the poorest, as these are often neglected, but also to build and sustain scientific capacity in the poorest countries.

    3. All key stakeholders must have a voice in approaching these problems in a cooperative and respectful political environment, mindful of international commitments and legal obligations concerning human rights, poverty reduction, and the environment. Free market, profit-driven solutions alone will not be sufficient. Sustainable development will also require governmental leadership; new forms of taxation of social 'bads' such as pollution, and budget subsidies of social 'goods' such as research and development of new technologies, in order to align social costs and benefits; inter-governmental cooperation; participation by civil society; and greater corporate social responsibility.

    4. These problems will require multilateral approaches, and a strong United Nations system, since the scale and nature of problems necessarily transcend national boundaries and require global solutions.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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