Taking the long view: Gro Brundtland on Leadership and Sustainable Development

Her Excellency Gro Harlem Brundtland, founding chair of the world commission that launched the concept of sustainable development to the center of the global stage in 1987, recently shared her thoughts with Restorative Leadership Institute Executive Director, Dr. Seana Lowe Steffen. Her perspectives on the state of the world and sustainability issues are extremely relevant as we approach the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, which takes place in Brazil this week, June 20-22.

If the state of the world is a reflection of the state of our leadership, twentieth century leadership failed to transform the risks to sustainability. As the world’s population balloons past 7 billion, there is mounting evidence that we have exceeded what a collection of international scientists known as The Club of Rome first predicted to be the limits to growth in 1972.

Global production and consumption patterns are considered the key contributors to climate change and resource depletion. Last year, 2011, was the second warmest on record according to the national climatic data center, this spring has been the hottest, and extreme weather events in general are threatening food security worldwide. Biologists have dubbed the scale of biodiversity loss observed at the global level the Sixth Great Extinction.

In a rare interview, Her Excellency Gro Harlem Brundtland urges a global shift toward a sustainable future and suggests that it is our personal leadership that will get us there:

"Leadership always means taking the long view, inspired by our common needs and a clear sense of shared responsibility for taking the necessary action. In our time it means thinking even further ahead than leaders had to do one or two generations ago. Now we have the evidence to show us that our human activities, the footsteps of our own time, will affect negatively the lives and choices we leave to future generations in a potentially disastrous way, due to our own overstepping of planetary boundaries. We face a moral challenge to act and to act in time to protect Planet Earth and the livelihood for new generations."

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) is scheduled for 20-22 June 2012 in Brazil to renew political commitments for sustainable development, assess progress and gaps, and chart responses to new challenges. Known as Rio+20, the conference marks the 20th anniversary of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), which was the first Earth Summit convened to address global sustainability questions.

In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland released a report titled, “Our Common Future. A global agenda for change.” In doing so, Dr. Brundtland and the WCED launched the concept of sustainable development to the center of the global stage, linking economic, social and ecological systems and calling for unprecedented international cooperation.

In this most recent interview, Dr. Brundtland expressed her concern that, “many are still not really ready to take seriously the mounting evidence of how humanity is affecting her own future.” She advises that,

"We are all in this together, every human being. We all need to realize that time is running out, and that the only answer to give is to take commonly based actions, and take seriously our shared and combined responsibilities."

While progress like the Kyoto Protocol has been made since The Earth Summit in Rio twenty years ago, “The tensions, controversies and gridlocks between development and environment will persist until our leadership respects the notion of sustainability,” according to the Brundtland Report: A 20 Years Update. Sustainability as defined by the Brundtland report is the ability “to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future.”

With ecosystems flashing warning signs throughout the world, Dr. Brundtland urges restorative leadership practices that prioritize the wellbeing of all humanity and elevate the quality of life for future generations. The question becomes, what does that take? According to Dr. Brundtland:

"A key factor is to realize that we all are responsible actors as we affect our common future through our own actions or inaction. It will never be sufficient for us as global, national and local citizens to leave all to our leaders and expect them alone to take responsibility. We must all feel responsible to support and select the kind of leaders that will pursue the right policy, and be willing to do our part in a vibrant, participatory democratic society that holds a holistic, global view of the future."

Rio+20 offers that opportunity to chart a sustainable course over what many consider to be the most critical next 20 years. Focused on green economies and institutional frameworks, Dr. Brundtland believes the best hope is to:

  • change the way we measure economic growth to integrate the social and environmental aspects of development
  • set sustainable development goals
  • expect all countries to report and be accountable to those goals

Final negotiations are scheduled for 13-15 June, with Global Town Halls following where local government officials from around the world will explore how to progress in meeting targets that safeguard the global commons.

Citizens can engage by being counted, commenting or making a voluntary commitment at http://www.uncsd2012.org/rio20/engagement.html. Be heard and let us know on the RLI blog what you said with your words or actions in service to a vision of global sustainability and planetary wellbeing.