Youth, the SDGs and the Food Sustainability Index

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On December 1, I was honored to be invited to take part in the 7th International Forum on Food and Nutrition, hosted by the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition (BFCN) at Università Bocconi in Milan, Italy.

There, I had the opportunity to join Peter Bakker (CEO of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development), Hilal Elver (UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food) and Rosie Boycott (Chair of London Food Policy) in a panel discussion on the launch of the first-ever Food Sustainability Index (FSI), a joint publication by BCFN and The Economist Intelligence Unit which ranks countries according to the sustainability of their food systems across the pillars of food waste, sustainable agriculture and nutritional challenges. In line with the work that is being undertaken at the UN level on a robust indicator framework to monitor the implementation of the SDGs, the FSI represents a helpful, if perfectible, tool to assist and empower communities, including young people, to take action to transform their agricultural and food systems for sustainable development. You can read more about it here.

At the event, which among many others was co-organized by the the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, I also joined my colleagues and fellow SDSN Youth delegates Andrea Zucca (National Representative for Italy), Fabrizio Saladini (Regional Representative for the Mediterranean) and Michela Magni (Project Officer, Solutions Initiatives) to celebrate and connect with youth solutions presented at the annual BCFN YES!, a competition for young researchers in the food and agricultural sectors.

Throughout the world, young farmers, young entrepreneurs, young leaders in rural communities are taking the lead to achieve SDG2 and positively impact their countries and regions. It is crucial that we recognize them not only as a key demographic for policy-makers to target, but also as exceptional problem-solvers and active contributors to the implementation of the food and agriculture-related targets of the 2030 Agenda.

  • You can watch the panel discussion on the launch of the Food Sustainability Index here (the panel starts at 53:07).
  • You can also watch the highlights of the 2016 edition of the BCFN Young Earth Solutions competition here.

Youth Solutions Report: celebrating and showcasing youth-led Solutions for the SDGs

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When ‘Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development‘ was agreed at the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015, there was widespread agreement on the fact that the international community’s progress towards a sustainable future should be a matter of utmost importance for all inhabitants of this planet, but particularly for younger generations. The Agenda emphasized the need to address some of the most daunting challenges affecting youth worldwide, including unemployment, access to education and health care, and general lack of opportunities for the full realization of young people’s rights and capabilities. Moreover, it identified children and young women and men as critical agents for change, and lauded their ‘infinite capacities for activism in the creation of a better world’.

Yet, when describing the situation facing young people, who currently comprise one fourth of the global population, one aspect is often overlooked: the incredible potential of mobilizing and supporting their active contribution, rather than just discussing about their needs and problems. Young people not only have a stake because they will be the ones implementing the Sustainable Development Goals and because their well-being will depend on achieving them, but also (and especially) because they are part of the most educated generation in the history of the world, and through their skills, creativity, and enthusiasm they are uniquely positioned to deliver transformative change across multiple sectors of society.

Ranging from entrepreneurship to charity initiatives, scientific research, educational projects and all sorts of innovative endeavours, young people are already playing a major role in pushing our countries towards sustainable development. In the words of the former President of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, Martin Sajdik,

“The energy that helped us take the Millennium Development Goals from New York into local communities in countries around the world was to a large extent driven by the passion of youth-led organizations and their members […], and young people, once again, can be called upon to transform the SDGs from words in a document into a real and tangible guide for the next fifteen years that will determine the future of people and the planet.”

This is why, now more than ever, the efforts of young people should be celebrated and showcased at all relevant levels. This is also why we believe it is crucial to bridge the gap that still exists between youth-led solutions and those stakeholders, including businesses, governments, and fellow citizens, who could further empower, support and invest in them, once they know more about the incredible impact that youth are having across their communities and regions.

Today, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network – Youth announces the future launch of the Youth Solutions Report, a new major initiative which aims to identify and celebrate youth organizations, youth-led projects and ground breaking ideas that are successfully working towards achieving the targets set in the 2030 Agenda. Covering an international spectrum, it will consolidate information on 50 Solutions run by youth organizations and individuals committed to implementing the SDGs and making them a reality.

By launching the Report, we aim to give further voice to young leaders and innovators, by allowing them to communicate their undertakings, forge new partnerships and ultimately be the driving force behind the 2030 Agenda. As such, I strongly encourage you to be part of this exciting initiative, by submitting your own Solution or partnering with us in the launch and dissemination of the Report. Let’s make sure that the untapped potential of youth is finally mobilized to meet the challenge of sustainable development.

Learn more at youthsolutions.report.

The SDGs can transform our universities, if we accept the challenge

21ISCN.FOTO MARIOLLORCA.COM

The following is the text of a speech I recently gave on the role of universities as leaders on the Sustainable Development Goals, when I was invited to the 2016 International Sustainable Campus Network Conference, themed “Leadership for a Sustainable Future” (Siena, Italy, 13-15 June). This post originally appeared on SDSNYouth.org.

Good morning to you all and thanks for having me. It is a pleasure for me to be able to follow in the footsteps of my fellow presenters to discuss a few key points for what I think should be the main focus of universities (and epistemic communities more generally) as they take on a leadership role for sustainable development and seek to transform themselves, aligning themselves with the historic shift which I am convinced is under way, even if not always so visible, across all spheres of our societies.

Some of the points that I will give resonate in particular with what SDSN Executive Director Guido Schmidt-Traub said yesterday. I will try to build on some of his arguments and please don’t get bored, this was inevitable since I am, as he mentioned, a Project Leader for SDSN Youth (which is the global youth chapter of SDSN) and I also worked with SDSN Mediterranean when I was here in Siena. Organizational culture, you might say.

Along with my work with SDSN Youth and SDSN, I am also an M.Sc. student at the London School of Economics, a future PhD candidate in international law, and I have been a young leader ever since I was here at the University of Siena, where I worked closely with the Rector and the university staff to bridge the gap between academia and youth and engage with the challenges of sustainable development at the local, national, and global scales. In this sense, my arguments will be a synthesis of the different perspectives and angles of observation deriving from the sum of such different experiences, focusing at the same time on the role of higher education for sustainable development, on the role of youth and young innovators, and of course on the substantive issues which comprise the subject of my academic career.

I want to start by pointing out that there are two important areas on which I think we should devote our attention. The first one is the role of epistemic communities, in terms of how they lead on sustainable development, through their research, their advocacy and policy standards, their delivery systems, their shared goals and metrics, their road-mapping and implementation strategies, their monitoring efforts, and so forth.

The main challenge here, which is what Guido also referenced yesterday, is that you need a paradigm shift in the way universities plan their activities. It is not enough to think in terms of the quality of research, of how well-equipped, and skilled, and visionary our researchers are. We must think in terms of what they are working for, whether the long-term goals that they are setting as the blueprint for all their research activities are (i) policy relevant, (ii) consistent with the transformative change which is urgently needed in our countries and at at the global level, and (iii) bold and self-reinforcing, in order to create positive feedbacks and innovation and not just incremental developments.

From this perspective, there are three key points which can be outlined. The first point is that you should have a goal, a clear goal which allows you to undertake the stocktaking and prioritization exercise that can help shift the behavior of complex societal systems, and the behavior and practices of universities as a primary step. Goal-based planning has many advantages. In the simplest terms, you need to have a guiding light, something which explains what vision of society and the future you are presenting, one around which all activities of a university need to rally around, promoting integrating thinking, facilitating the building of coalitions and partnerships, mobilizing stakeholders, fostering system innovation and above all providing a shared narrative and normative framework. This is crucial, and this is also why I feel so enthusiastic about the Sustainable Development Goals. The real strength of the SDGs is precisely that they build a shared vision and are finally freed from the silo mentality that shaped the Millennium Development Goals. Their holistic framework of economic, social and environmental targets has the potential to inspire coherent, result-driven action, and to advance that kind of technology-driven development we so desperately need.

A second point relates to what kind of activities universities should engage in. We are used to think that R&D and planning is the main step of the innovation process, and of development in general, where universities and research can play their traditional role. This is simply no longer possible. Universities must be key actors in implementation and monitoring processes, engaging with other stakeholders, and harnessing the power of data to support countries’ efforts towards sustainable development. We are witnessing a true data revolution, and the SDGs call upon that data revolution (through the 169 targets, the indicators developed by the Inter-Agency Expert Group on SDG Indicators, and the work of the High Level Group for Partnership, Coordination and Capacity-Building for Statistics for the 2030 Agenda) to be directed towards monitoring, impact measurement, and implementation processes which will allow communities at all relevant scales to progress towards sustainable development. If we don’t know what we are doing (and often this is the case, with non existent, non reliable, non disaggregated data), we simply don’t know what are the needs and strengths, and where we are failing.

Finally, we need to promote dynamic ecosystems of universities interacting with each other, the larger epistemic community, and national/local governments. These are essential for translating knowledge into action. Universities must reinforce their role in multi-stakeholder partnerships, national strategies and local pathways through higher degree of mobilization and organization, through filling gaps in policy dialogue, and through efficient delivery systems. In other words, we must start to think of universities which engage in problem solving, universities that act IN society and not just for society. Building critical masses through networks and partnerships, undertaking that kind of solution-driven exercise, that kind of backcasting, is fundamental in explaining to policymakers what to do, as they often don’t know (and I am thinking of the problem of climate denialism, for example, which in part has been driven by the confrontational approach taken by the different positions and the failure of scientists to engage more deeply with the wider public opinion).

The other big area I want to focus on is concerned with the need to involve young people, and students, a hell of a lot more in what universities are doing. I have heard yesterday that universities build future leaders, but let me be clear, I think this is totally wrong, because young people must be recognized as TODAY’s leaders. There are 1.8 billion people aged 15-24 in the world, 25 percent of the global population, and they are arguably part of the most educated generation that has ever existed! As young people, we now have unprecedented access to knowledge, which is also spreading out (albeit with great inequality and daunting challenges) to developing countries, and the bottom line is that while we usually hear a lot about youth needs, wants, problems, and while leaders usually call only upon youth “creativity” and “enthusiasm”, young people are also incredibly skilled, have capacity to adapt, and possess that kind of fluid intelligence which is crucial to solve today’s complex problems.

In other words, universities don’t merely have to equip students for the labor market or to be professionals when they graduate. They have to put them to work now, and they have to empower them to contribute from the outset, for two main reasons. On the one hand, because young people’s stake in sustainable development is not one materializing in the distant future, but rather one which is already visible today, in terms of massive unemployment, unhealthy and risk-prone neighborhoods, climate change impacts, and so forth. On the other, because young innovators around the world are already playing a major role for their communities, and the problem is simply that we don’t communicate and disseminate those efforts enough, that we don’t create an environment which is conducive for investors, supporters, and institutions to partner with young people to help them unleash their full potential. So there are three points here as well.

The first thing that universities have to do is curriculum change. We have heard about it yesterday, but we miss one point. Curriculum change is the most powerful means of promoting transformative change through youth leadership across all sectors of society, but we don’t need just more courses on sustainable development, we need to transform the wide gap that exists between some subjects and others, particularly with respect to the way economics and finance are still taught in many institutions. In addition, we have to put emphasis on linking interdisciplinary knowledge and professional practice, making a positive case for sustainable development to be seen as an opportunity to build skills, specialize, get into a challenge which is simultaneously a personal and a social one. We need students from all disciplines to engage with sustainable development, and from this perspective high-quality Massive Open Online Courses, like those created by SDSN.edu, are crucial, and could be adopted tomorrow if all universities wanted.

Secondly, we have to create inclusive internal decision-making processes which facilitate exchange of information and fruitful cooperation between students and institutions and which may fill gaps in university strategies. Moreover, institutions involved in local pathways for the implementation of the SDGs must streamline the skills and creativity of young people in those pathways. There is a movement around the world of young people, which we don’t see, especially in developing countries, and that movement is ready to contribute now. It is important to remember that these movements, think for example of divestment groups, become protest only if universities are not able to effectively engage with them.

Third, the positive impact of young innovators must be showcased, assisted and incentivized in both academic and extracurricular activities: innovation prizes, competitions, and assistance in securing financial and managerial capital should become the norm for universities training a new generation of sustainable development leaders. We have to adopt the same solutions-driven mentality we advocate for countries to put students to work in practical problem-solving, allowing their skills to be employed while already in university, when there is an environment which can help them. The risk here is they get out of education and they find themselves out of work, or not immediately supported, and thus their ideas can’t be put into practice. Universities are the ideal ecosystem to promote entrepreneurship, applied research, and other student ventures (including educational programs aimed at kids and children). I am thinking, for instance, of Solar for Life, a brilliant non-profit organization launched by students at the University of Toronto to deploy renewable energy to rural communities in developing countries, promote developmental research, and foster sustainable entrepreneurship, which SDSN Youth partners with. Without a meaningful backing from their university, it would have been a lot harder for our friends at Solar for Life to scale up their efforts and kick-start pilot projects, and I think this and similar stories shall serve both as an inspiration and an encouragement for our higher education system to start partnering more with its pupils.

To conclude, what I outlined is a big challenge, because it confronts some of the path dependencies that universities are locked-into, and calls for transformative, not incremental change. But it is also a great opportunity that we have to make universities relevant again in the public debate, and to let them step up to the challenge of influencing business and governments in the implementation of sustainable solutions and mobilizing the youth skills, energy and visions that exist within themselves. This is the greatest opportunity we have, I would argue, because by doing so we would also boost our chances to achieve the 2030 Agenda and secure a sustainable future for our generation and those to come. Thank you. 

The Sustainable Development Goals and international law: legal challenges to the achievement of ‘environmental’ Goals in the 2030 Agenda

 

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Photo Credit: UN Photo/Cia Pak

On 25 September 2015, Heads of State and Government from the 193 Member States  of the United Nations gathered at the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a “comprehensive, far-reaching and people-centred set of universal and transformative Goals and targets” which will “stimulate action over the next fifteen years in areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet”.

In its essence, the outcome document of the UN Sustainable Development Summit (which contains the much-heralded Sustainable Development Goals) delineated a policy framework concerned with mobilizing efforts at the international, national and subnational level around a set of common priorities relating to sustainable development, and by doing so, it then sought to address challenges as diverse and ambitious as ending poverty and hunger, combating inequalities, building peaceful and inclusive societies, promoting human rights, and ensuring the protection of the planet and its natural resources.

From this perspective, the adoption of the SDGs represented an unprecedented effort not only to move away from a development agenda still heavily dominated by a narrow focus on the economic and social components (something which is evident in the design -and failures– of the Millennium Development Goals), but also to positively identify the reciprocal interactions between the various components of sustainable development that must be taken into account by States at the stage of implementation. This effort, in turn, will now require transformative changes in the way all sectors of society deal with the above-mentioned challenges: from the economy to life sciences to law, existing institutions and systems of rules will be called upon to remove the obstacles to sustainable development and actively promote the achievement of the 17 Goals and 169 targets.

As a legal scientist with strong interests in the field of the environment, I believe that legal regimes are particularly bound to interact with the 2030 Agenda, and that ensuring a mutually supportive relationship between them will be necessary if human development is to stay within the Earth’s planetary boundaries in the next fifteen years and beyond. While I will explore this topic more in depth in an upcoming journal article which I am currently writing with Professor Riccardo Pavoni of the University of Siena (Italy), here I want to highlight the important governance function that international environmental law can play in the implementation of the ‘environmental’ goals and targets contained in Resolution 70/1. In fact, on the one hand, as recently maintained by the UNEP, violations of international environmental law “have the potential to undermine sustainable development and the implementation of agreed environmental goals and objectives at all levels”. On the other, international environmental law constitutes the normative backbone of many (possibly all) of the SDGs, in the sense that institutional and legal developments in the field of the environment can either “foster” or “frustrate” such goals, and that the development of innovative legal approaches, coupled with increased stakeholder engagement, is necessary to accommodate environmental protection concerns in the operationalization of the 2030 Agenda.

Indeed, it seems prohibitive to outline all the potential challenges that international environmental law will have to address in order to enable a mutually supportive relationship with the post-2015 development framework. Moreover, it could be convincingly argued that the underlying problem in this respect will remain the lack of integration between international environmental law and different legal regimes, with a strong emphasis on areas such as trade and investment law and human rights. At the same time, it appears possible, when examining the content of the 2030 Agenda in the context of other recent developments both in the activities of the UNGA and generally in international environmental law, to pinpoint at least some of these recurring challenges. Pavoni and I hold nine of them to be particularly important. More specifically, four are concerned with substantive issues (broadly corresponding to SDGs 12-15) while the rest mainly relates to procedural elements, means of implementation, and shortcomings in the general architecture of international environmental law.

The four substantive challenges are: (i) swiftly implementing the Paris Agreement on climate change and ensuring that commitments contained in the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) of the Parties remain ambitious on a pathway to the decarbonization of the economy by 2050; (ii) developing a new regime for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, as currently mandated by Resolution 69/292 of the General Assembly; (iii) strengthening integration within international environmental law by promoting the definition of linkage-based plans, policies and programmes, with a particular focus on the widespread adoption of an ecosystem-based approach to environmental protection, increased consideration of the underlying drivers of biodiversity loss and ecosystem destruction, and the role of environmental impact assessment (EIA) laws; and (iv) advancing a holistic approach to the management of chemicals and waste under existing international conventions and developing new multilateral agreements on the subject, where needed. Taken together, these challenges continue to highlight major gaps in international environmental law, and addressing them would also mean achieving concrete progress around at least five critical planetary boundaries, including climate change, biosphere integrity, land-system change, and introduction of chemicals, nanomaterials, and other novel substances.

The remaining topics emphasize the need to further advance key procedural norms and to strengthen the means of implementation in legal regimes in the field of the environment. Most of them reflect long-standing normative trends in the development of international environmental law, while others represent relatively new topics lying at the intersection of law and policy which must increasingly inform the development of multilateral environmental agreements and the evolution of already existing institutions and regimes. They are: (i) harnessing foreign direct investment, official development assistance, and domestic finance for environmental protection, including through further promotion of the role of market-based instruments such as payments-for-ecosystem-services schemes (PES), consistent with the vision outlined in the Addis Ababa Action Agenda; (ii) increasing capacity-building in, and technology transfer to developing countries in order to operationalize the global indicator framework and, more generally, foster conservation and sustainable use efforts (i.e. in terms of establishment, management and effective monitoring of protected areas); (iii) reinforcing science-policy interfaces and bolstering the role of intergovernmental platforms in building capacity for the effective use of science in law- and decision-making at all relevant levels (i.e. in terms of the assessment and accounting of the economic value of ecosystem services); (iv) enhancing public participation in decision-making and access to justice and information as an indispensable component in the implementation of the procedural and substantive environmental rights of individuals and communities, as most recently urged at Rio+20; and (v) advancing liability regimes at the domestic and international level (but also, more generally, non-compliance procedures), particularly by moving away from the traditional rules of State responsibility in favor of more stringent civil liability rules.

It should be noted that it was not by chance that I reserved these two essential aspects for last. On the one hand, despite the message contained in Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration, progress on the topics of public information and participation and access to justice remains uneven, held hostage by geographical differences in the way human rights are being re-considered, translated into law and interpreted from an environmental perspective. As a consequence, it will be important to ensure that ambitious regional achievements on this topic, such as the Aarhus and Espoo Conventions, which provide for key procedural rights in the field of the environment, inform significant developments in other parts of the world. On the other hand, more than 20 years after the proclamation of Rio Principle 13 on liability and compensation, the emergence of rules of strict State liability and civil liability regimes in domestic legislation and/or multilateral environmental agreements continues to be undermined by the conflicting perspectives of States on issues such as the very definition of environmental damage, the role of the State in redress, the burden of proof, the scope of compensation, the limits of liability, and so forth. That these problems were carefully ignored in the drafting of the SDGs (not to mention the specific provision excluding liability and compensation contained in paragraph 52 of the decision adopting the Paris Agreement) bears further testimony to the steep task placed upon international environmental law in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

[Use the following citation when quoting from the article: Riccardo Pavoni and Dario Piselli, ‘Sustainable Development Goals and International Environmental Law: Normative Value and Challenges for Implementation’ (2016) forthcoming]

Accounting for ecosystem services to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals

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Photo Credit, Neil Palmer (CIAT) “The Páramo ecosystem of southwestern Colombia”

This post originally appeared on Sense & Sustainability on December 9, 2015.

When 193 world leaders gathered in New York this last September to agree on the post-2015 sustainable development agenda, fittingly entitled “Transforming Our World“, the atmosphere was one of celebration and great optimism. After all, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (and 169 targets) that are included in the new Agenda have been developed under conditions that are much different from those that led to adoption of the Millennium Development Goals back in 2000, when the latter were criticized due to the absence of a clear action plan, lack of previously defined means of implementation and monitoring, and the largely arbitrary set of challenges they sought to address.

First of all, the comprehensive, far-reaching commitments enshrined in “Transforming Our World” logically required a huge amount of preliminary groundwork and behind-the-scenes bargaining that in turn allowed the draft agreement to be in place well in advance of the Sustainable Development Summit. In addition, the entire process was punctuated by increased emphasis on the urgency to mobilize the financial, institutional and technological resources needed to implement the SDGs and establish an effective monitoring framework, as shown by the inclusion of a specific goal concerned with the revitalization of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development (Goal 17), the endorsement of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development, and the colossal work on data and indicators that is being put forth by the Inter-agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators. Finally, the SDGs themselves have the ambition to be indivisible, that is, to acknowledge that economic development, social inclusion and environmental sustainability can not to be pursued in isolation if mankind is to embark on a sustainable development trajectory; and universal, as the burden of their implementation (as well as the risks of a failure) will clearly fall upon the international community as a whole.

In this perspective, it is important for countries to set their priorities straight right from the outset, making sure that none of the goals is left behind even when geographical disparities and different capabilities will inevitably lead to uneven progress in their achievement. As a matter of fact, although some commentators have already argued that we shall only focus on those measures which will prove more cost-effective in the face of limited resources, the creation of fragmented pathways for the implementation of the SDGs would actually undermine the entire process, and the separation of social and environmental targets in particular would prove disastrous in the long-term.

The problem here is the same that led Goal 7 of the MDGs, which was tasked with ‘ensuring environmental sustainability’, to become one of the greatest failures of that agenda: it is way more difficult to convince governments and communities to invest in the protection of ecosystems and adopt policies that regulate the exploitation of natural resources than it is to tackle extreme poverty and advance human rights, where progress apparently yields more visible -and immediate- results.

Think of biological diversity, for example. Target 7.B of the MDGs explicitly recognized in 2000 that a surge in protected areas was needed to preserve ecosystems, species of flora and fauna that inhabit them, and their contribution to human societies. Yet that target, which the vast majority of countries had in the meantime pledged to achieve by 2010 by committing to the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, still remains largely unmet. Should this be of some concern to us, if the meantime we lift people out of poverty and create more opportunities for developing countries?

The long-eluded answer to this question is a simple one: it should, because without halting biodiversity loss and safeguarding the integrity of the biosphere we actually won’t be able to do the latter. Indeed, while it is very common (and legitimate) to reduce the question of conservation to one of compassion towards living beings, our relationship with nature is one of (inter)dependence, not stewardship. Through their complex structure and functioning, ecological systems are in fact the building blocks upon which societies have developed since human beings first appeared. Discounting their value is a sure way for policy-makers to neglect the contribution of such systems to the well-being not just of future generations, but of present ones as well. In other words, it is due time we move towards a systematic accounting of ecosystem services and integrate it into national and local policies and processes.

This is not a new idea at all. Broadly defined as the direct and indirect benefits that ecological systems provide to humanity annually, ecosystem services have been conceptualized and assessed by researchers for several years now, even if there is still much to do in terms of refining methodologies and overcoming scientific uncertainty. In 1997, for instance, a seminal study led by ecological economist Robert Costanza estimated that US $33 trillion per year is the average value of these renewable goods and services (most of which are directly related to the role of living organisms within their ecosystem, such as nutrient cycling, pollination, biological control, food production, raw materials, genetic resources, and so on), and that figure was recently raised to US $125-145 trillion per year when Costanza used updated data to revise his own assessment. The same paper also hypothesized that the global loss of ecosystem services caused by land use change may already be costing somewhere between US $4.3-20.2 trillion/yr, depending on which unit values are used.

Yet, countries have so far been reluctant to incorporate this way of thinking into their development and poverty reduction strategies, planning processes, national accounting, and reporting systems, as mandated in 2010 by the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Even if some examples of local and national policies, whether resulting in the appointment of specific advisory bodies (like the UK Government’s Natural Capital Committee) or the establishment of partnerships with organizations and programs such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity initiative, indeed point in this direction, achieving the SDGs will necessarily require more than that, and will especially entail placing biodiversity into the mainstream framework for decision-making through an unprecedented focus on the role of data for sustainable development.

In order to do so, accounting for the flow of ecosystem services at the global, national, and local level must become a central concern for the implementation of Goals 14 and 15 of the new Agenda. Adopting Target 15.9, which essentially reiterates Target 2 of the Aichi Targets, was one first step. Making sure that the indicators proposed within the umbrella of the Inter-agency Expert Group keep track of the number of national plans and processes that integrate the values of biodiversity and ecosystems (although there was no agreement over this point during the latest meeting of the Group) will be another. The most important role, however, is going to be played by international platforms like the newly-established IPBES (Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), which will be tasked with strengthening science-policy interfaces and building capacity for the effective use of science in decision-making at all relevant levels: without their contribution, and the necessary willingness on the part of countries to participate in such processes, renewable natural capital will continue to decline at an alarming rate, and the likely consequences for human well-being of are all but certain to be dire.

References

  • Costanza, R et al., ‘The Value of the World’s Ecosystems and Natural Capital’ 387 Nature 253
  • Costanza, R et al., ‘Changes in the Global Value of Ecosystem Services’ (2014) 26 Global Environmental Change 152
  • Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Current State and Trends (Washington DC: Island Press, 2005)

Fighting fundamentalism is about development

Photo Credit: Ahmed Mousa/Reuters
Photo Credit: Ahmed Mousa/Reuters

I’m an atheist, and I believe that, when discounting the historical importance that religion has had in shaping the artistic, moral, and cultural identity of nations, the religious view of life is just harmful to mankind.

Yet we can not pretend that religion does not exist. Only 16% of the world population identifies itself as unaffiliated, there are 2.2 billion Christians and 1.6 billion Muslims on the planet whose creed will not go away, nor will fade, overnight (or in a century, for that matter).

This is why it is despicable, the result of grim political propaganda (both the one driven by ISIS’ delusional mission and that fueled by our own far-right extremists), to envision a clash of religions or even call for a war ON religion, particularly Islam. To put it simply, the inability of some to understand, let alone analyze, the complexity of terrorism mirrors the blindness of fundamentalists, and it provides an equally fertile ground for isolation and mutual hatred.

A problem exists, however. It is the thin line beyond which religious beliefs, rather than ways to achieve a spiritual experience of the divine, become keys to interpretation of injustices and abuses of power, and means through which a hope of revenge is presented as not just possible, but even desirable. No confession is immune from this dangerous narrative: just think of the enthusiasm that the election of Pope Francis has created in the Catholic world, at a time when politicians seem instead unable to offer meaningful answers to the economic and social challenges we are facing.

Religion as a method of interpretation of reality (or perhaps, we might say, the exploitation of religion for political purposes) gives the illusion that faith can deliver a solution to suffering and poverty, and from such illusion flows much evil. It is not surprising, in this sense, that the main target of Daesh propaganda is the ‘gray zone’, i.e. those citizens of Islamic religion who have a hard time integrating in Western countries and who are confronted with a dramatic choice when they are most vulnerable to economic crises, social exclusion, and the restrictions of individual freedoms that derive from events such as the ones which occurred in Paris: either you choose a future with no prospects in a society that discriminates you, or seek compensation through Allah.

In other words, it is due time for the international community to seriously address the root causes of terrorism, which are not squarely religious, and to do that in a multipolar geopolitical context as well as through a perspective that refutes both the rhetorics of feel-good nonviolence and the idiotic idea that an ‘Islamist invasion’ is taking place.

On the one hand, it is indisputable that we shall fight the extremist fringes of fundamentalism, which is first and foremost an enemy of all the Islamic world, where the majority of massacres and mass rapes has indeed occurred so far. On the other, it is urgent (and necessary) to simultaneously invest in a system of international relations that favors a less unequal economic development and fosters greater social inclusion, be it in Europe, in the Middle East, or wherever extreme poverty and political instability continue to expose millions to the religious insanity of terrorist groups like ISIS.

***

Sono ateo. Credo che, al netto dell’importanza storica delle religioni (tutte le religioni) nel plasmare l’identità artistica, morale e culturale dei popoli, semplicemente la visione religiosa sia dannosa per l’essere umano.

E tuttavia non possiamo far finta che la religione non esista. Solo il 16% della popolazione mondiale non si identifica con una specifica confessione, ci sono sul nostro pianeta 2 miliardi e 200 milioni di cristiani e 1 miliardo e 600 milioni di musulmani e questo numero non scomparirà né si assottiglierà, in una notte come in un secolo.

Per questo sono impensabili, frutto di una orrenda propaganda politica (sia quella delirante dell’ISIS che quella macabra e ignobile degli estremismi di casa nostra), tanto le invocazioni ad una guerra tra religioni quanto quelle ad una guerra ALLA religione, in particolare modo quella islamica. Semplicemente, l’incapacità di capire e analizzare la complessità dei fenomeni, che quotidianamente osservo nell’opinione pubblica e qui su Facebook, è speculare alla cecità del fondamentalismo, un terreno egualmente fertile per l’isolamento e l’odio reciproco.

Un problema però esiste, ed è quella sottile linea oltre la quale il credo religioso, da esperienza individuale del divino, diviene interpretazione della realtà, chiave di lettura delle ingiustizie e dei soprusi, e mezzo di somministrazione di una speranza di rivalsa. Nessuna confessione, di nuovo, è immune da questo rischio, basti pensare all’entusiasmo che l’elezione di Papa Francesco ha creato nel mondo cattolico, in un momento in cui la politica non pare invece in grado di fornire risposte alle difficoltà economiche e sociali che ci troviamo a vivere.

La religione quale metodo di interpretazione della realtà (o forse, potremmo anche dire, lo sfruttamento della religione a fini politici), qui sta il seme dell’oscurantismo, illude che vi sia una soluzione dettata dalla fede alla sofferenza ed alla povertà. Non sorprende pertanto che l’oggetto principale della propaganda di Daesh sia proprio ‘la zona grigia’, ovvero quella popolazione di religione islamica che faticosamente cerca di integrarsi nei paesi occidentali e che, vulnerabile di fronte alla crisi economica, all’esclusione, ed alle restrizioni delle libertà individuali che derivano da eventi come quelli di Parigi, viene messa di fronte a una scelta: o un futuro senza prospettive in una società che la ghettizza, oppure un avvenire di riscossa tramite Allah.

In altre parole, la comunità mondiale dovrebbe finalmente -e seriamente- affrontare le radici profonde del terrorismo, che non sono tout court religiose, in un contesto geopolitico multipolare e in un’ottica che vada al di là tanto delle teorie dell’invasione islamista quanto del mantra irreale del ‘vogliamoci bene’.

Sacrosanto combattere la frangia estremista del fondamentalismo, che è nemico anche e soprattutto del mondo islamico, dove infatti ci sono state le principali offensive, i massacri, gli stupri di massa. Necessario, però, investire contemporaneamente in un sistema di relazioni internazionali che favorisca uno sviluppo economico meno diseguale ed una maggiore inclusione sociale, in Europa come in Medio Oriente e, per estensione, ovunque la povertà estrema e l’instabilità politica continuino a prestare il fianco alle sirene della follia religiosa.

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