Fragilecologies

Who Watches the World's Environment?

April 2, 1997
By Michael Glantz

Fragilecologies By Michael GlantzThe United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), based in Nairobi, Kenya, is in deep trouble. Its funding has been greatly reduced by the United States and other governments throughout the world. The US says that the UN system is corrupt, and it probably is in many traditionally corrupt ways (mishandling of funds, hiring of friends and family, competence not valued as a job criterion, etc. — although I haven't yet heard of the UN Secretary-General renting out space in the UN to those who want to influence UN decisions). Despite all of the system's negatives, what most often comes to my mind is the adage we use about democracy: It may not be the best form of government, but it is better than the others. Perhaps the same is valid for the UN system.

In the absence of a global watchdog for the environment, what organization is capable of mustering enough political clout to get nations to pay attention to common environmental concerns? Without a UNEP, would there have been a climate convention to deal with global warming? Would there have been a convention to end the use of ozone-depleting chemicals? UNEP was the first agency to form a coordinating committee to monitor ozone depletion around the world in the late 1970s. The attempt to halt the process of desertification (the creation of desert-like landscapes where none had existed in recent times) is yet another area of success for UNEP, in the sense that it drew attention to this creeping environmental degradation faced in a variety of ways by almost all countries around the globe.

While UNEP cannot take credit for all actions at the global level to save the environment, it should get a good share of it. The work done and the morale of UNEP's workers reflect the ethics and interests of the particular person heading UNEP. Since its creation in 1972 at the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, there have only been three Executive Directors: Maurice Strong, Mustafa Tolba, and Elizabeth Dowdeswell. Dowdeswell was put in charge to clean up the system; instead, she paralyzed it with even more bureaucratic tasks. She has just resigned amidst charges that the organization has been ineffective. But is it her fault or the fault of the governments that elected her to that position for political reasons and not for her administrative talents?

Is it time to start opening up the UN system to leaders of industry who have efficiently and effectively managed companies with budgets larger than UNEP's? How about finding a Lee Iacocca or a Ted Turner or some other corporate mogul who has the ability to run the organization, is concerned about the environment, is committed to protecting what's left of the global environment, and who knows how to generate funding at a time when money seems to be disappearing for essential tasks such as environmental protection?

What happens if UNEP disappears? Organizations with poor track records on dealing with environmental issues and which are under pressure from those who want to exploit their resources (such as the World Bank) will step in.

UNEP is currently being reduced to a shadow of its former self by severe budget cuts. It could be dismantled completely. We should not let this happen. We should call on national governments to look beyond their own narrow political interests and establish a UNEP that is not subject to the petty international politics of the day but, instead, can operate with autonomy. An autonomous organization could monitor environments everywhere and alert governments and the global public about environmental practices and changes that have the potential to harm us all. One example is the rapid cutting down of the rainforest in tropical Africa. Companies from Europe and Asia (regions that have denuded their own forested areas) are now focused on Africa, which is in dire need of cash. For a proverbial few dollars, African countries are encouraged to chop down their precious rainforests.

We can sit at home in Boulder or New York or LA and shake our heads at such wanton practices, BUT where is that tropical hardwood going? To North America and to Europe. Where is the tropical wood from Southeast Asia going? To customers in other developing countries? It is going to Japan and to Europe. An old Pogo cartoon comes to mind regarding this destruction — the one that says, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

The world needs a UNEP. What will it take to fund it at a size that makes sense, so it can do its job effectively (assuming that governments really want it to do so)? Governments have to pick the right Executive Director and then stand back. Instead, they seem to be trying to destroy it by raising issue of bureaucratic corruption or inefficiency (which, by the way, happens to plague their own governments as well).

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