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The Earth in 2050

By Mikhael Gorbachev, Jane Goodall, Parker Liautaud, Jamie Oliver and Philippe Cousteau Jr.

Mikhael Gorbachev - Green Cross International founding president and the last leader of the Soviet Union.

The future is not predetermined. It depends on what we do today. In the face of every great challenge there is always a choice. The choice we have to make is a collective one. Everyone — readers of this magazine, politicians, business leaders, activists — has a role to play. The question is whether we want to ensure a safe, sustainable future or keep being held hostage to the current mix of political and economic interests and motivations.

Since the end of the Cold War, policymakers have failed to provide leadership in meeting the interrelated challenges of security, poverty and backwardness, and environmental degradation. Wasteful spending on weapons of war continues to devour resources needed for development. The current consumption-driven economic model is not sustainable either socially or environmentally: We are covering and filling our planet with massive amounts of dirt and rubbish while putting up with unacceptable levels of inequality and injustice. Going on like this is a recipe for disaster.

But I am an optimist. I have seen and participated in monumental change during my 81 years. Real and imagined walls that divided Europe and the world for decades have fallen. We have taken action to reduce stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. Across the world, people are standing up to defend their rights and achieve democratic change that is long overdue. These are real changes, and it means that we can also change our ways in order to protect nature.

We need to be cleaner in every respect, from the forms of energy we produce and our protection of the oceans to how we treat underprivileged nations and peoples.

Change starts with new ideas and courageous leaders. Today's leaders are mostly concerned with putting out the fires of the global financial crisis for which they bear much of the responsibility. They are not doing nearly enough to ensure our planet's sustainable future. That is why the role of civil society is so important today.

Twenty years ago, civil society leaders met in Rio de Janeiro alongside the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development — the Earth Summit — and urged me to help create a "Red Cross for the environment."

Over the past 20 years the organization we created — Green Cross International — and its national branches have been active in many countries, implementing important, successful projects to protect fresh water, clean up the environmental consequences of the arms race and conduct environmental education programs. We interact with the United Nations, the scientific community and nongovernmental organizations. To make the voice of civil society heard, this month we shall join other environmental organizations in Rio de Janeiro, meeting alongside the Rio+20 gathering of world leaders.

Rio will not offer a silver bullet to solve our environmental problems. But it gives us another chance to take our planet's pulse and collectively look for ways to clean up our lives.

 

Jane Goodall - The world's foremost expert on chimpanzees and founder of the Jane Goodall Institute.

Since the dawn of human history, we have been destroying the natural world at an ever-increasing rate. Now, as human numbers grow, we face an ecological crisis. Mother Nature is resilient, but the time is fast approaching when she will be battered beyond her ability to restore herself. We must make a choice.

From one direction come the voices of those who put economic gain ahead of the interests of future generations, who believe in unlimited economic growth. They are joined by millions who are uninformed and those who understand but do nothing — either because they refuse to change their comfortable lifestyle or because they feel helpless.

If we heed these voices, I see the world in 50 years, perhaps 100, as a dark place, the wonders of nature known only from archived materials and a few sad prisoners in zoos. Environmental refugees, in their millions, will have fled their destroyed homelands, flooded by the rising seas or buried by the encroaching deserts. Many people will be starving as they fight for access to water and land. Medical science will be unable to cope with new infections as bacteria build up resistance to more and more antibiotics and the tropical forests where so many medical cures are sourced are destroyed.

Down the other route are the voices of those advocating for protection of the environment — who understand that, without nature and all that nature provides, not only will plants and animals perish, but eventually so will we.

Albert Einstein said, "We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive." Indeed! For only then shall we listen to the voices of wisdom. I still have hope that we will.

Many people now understand the need to protect natural resources, realizing that as we destroy animals and ecosystems our own future will also be affected, that saving the forests will slow global warming. A growing number of corporate leaders understand that the materials they need from the developing world for their businesses are running out. More people are speaking out for the poor, and the concept of fair trade has emerged. Ethical values are moving into business. And, yes, fortunately nature is amazingly resilient.

I work with young people around the world. They are breaking down the barriers we have built between cultures, religions, nations and the natural world. We need a critical mass of young people — the next parents, teachers, lawyers, politicians, etc. — who understand that while we need money to live, we should not live for money.

And finally, we are realizing that each one of us makes a difference every day. If each one of us spends a few moments thinking about the consequences of the choices we make — what we buy, eat, wear, and so on — the cumulative impact on the planet will be huge. Then in 50 years, the world will be a much better place than it is today.

 

Parker Liautaud - Polar adventurer; recently completed his third expedition to the North Pole.

At seventeen years old, I cannot presume to predict the state of the world in 2050, given the complexity of managing environmental, geopolitical and economic uncertainty. However, I view the world in 2050 as potentially a much better place to live relative to today because we are now starting to see the urgency of the climate change challenge.

We should view our approach to this issue as an opportunity, not just a burdensome obligation. As an adventurer, I see the world in terms of unexplored potential, and I am far more driven by ambition than by fear — an optimistic 2050 will only be achieved by boldly tackling climate change.

To make a better future possible, scientific evidence must underlie climate policy. This may seem obvious, but the dynamic nature of the issue makes it difficult for politicians to prioritize science above understandable short-term concerns for the economy. Shifting attitudes toward nuclear energy and developments in renewables will help us overcome the fundamental issue of energy dependence on oil. Market-based solutions will prove a significant bridge between science and policy. Climate policy must support these initiatives, like the Bolloré Blue Car, backed by the French industrialist Vincent Bolloré.

In 2050, my generation will be at the peak of our professional path, and there has never been a more connected generation. As David Jones points out in his book, Who Cares Wins, young people wield enormous power as consumers and voters. Our generation must lead a world in which environmental responsibility is the norm, if my optimistic view of 2050 is to be realized.

The vision of a better 2050 also depends on broad, immediate action by all stakeholders. By adopting a multifaceted approach, in which governments, corporations, NGOs, scientists, multilateral organizations and individuals work together and focus on scientific and market evidence instead of politics, we could — as President Barack Obama says — "win the future."

I see the world in 2050 as one in which humanity has avoided the horrifying effects of climate change. Most importantly, we will have rid ourselves of dependence on oil as an energy source, and energy independence will be in sight. Without scientifically sound action, though, countless environmental threats loom. I hope that by this time, the world will have recognized the true urgency of the threat.

There exists a 2050 in which there is a commitment to ensuring that the needs of a global population of 9 billion are met sustainably. So let's explore... urgently.

 

Jamie Oliver - "The Naked Chef" author and television host.

Undeniably the most important problem we face as a planet is an environmental one. But I've come at this question from a food perspective, and we have to face facts: It's not looking good.

The way governments and the public are failing to react to the issues surrounding diet-related disease and obesity, farming and the clarity of information on packaging and in advertising is a real concern. If we continue as we are, the world is going to be much more unhealthy and unhappy by 2050. With exploding populations, "Western" diets spreading their unhealthy side-effects to densely populated places like China, India and Africa, and limited fresh water supplies (the largest ingredient in most foods), we're likely to face famine, mass migration, even war.

I'm not talking about the distant future; this is in our lifetime. The saddest thing of all is that it's only during the last century that we've really messed things up.

Last year, the International Federation of the Red Cross announced that worldwide 925 million people were underfed, while 1.5 billion were dangerously overweight or obese. This absurd figure grows by the day. Governments, in general, don't seem to have many solutions. I hear a lot about "personal responsibility" for weight control but, as health professionals know, it's not as simple as telling people to eat less and exercise more.

Don't get me wrong: Individuals, businesses and governments have worked together to inspire change. In Australia, regional governments and The Good Guys, a chain of stores, have supported my Ministry of Food project, which teaches people in Brisbane to cook and is expanding into other states. Other people out there are also championing change — Stephanie Alexander with the Kitchen Garden Foundation in Australia and Alice Waters with the Edible Schoolyard Project in the United States, for example — representing hundreds of people across the world fighting to make a difference.

At the moment, such initiatives are small and not supported or invested in enough to inspire radical change. Without being too cynical, large-scale change is unlikely unless people can make money out of it; the big corporations are happy selling junk food and stuff that's nutritionally barren. It's going to take a huge cultural shift to change that greed-based model.

Ultimately, all the signs show that humans, despite our intelligence and scientific knowledge, are not actually taking what we know to be the sensible steps to keep us all fed. We only seem to make big changes when we're forced, so things have got to get a whole lot worse before anything happens.

One of the downfalls of democracy is that by nature politicians are transient. Many only think about the next three to four years, not the next 20 to 50. In the meantime, all those wonderful people who are taking action are even more important: They will be the key-holders to and pioneers of the future.

 

Philippe Cousteau Jr. - Explorer, social entrepreneur and environmental activist.

There is no doubt that during the next 40 years our greatest challenge will be the strain of a growing population on dwindling natural resources. Nevertheless, there are several causes for optimism.

Two in particular come to mind. I spent a lot of time covering the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, and I remember visiting an elementary school not long after the disaster. The kids were asking me a lot of questions, and at the end I turned to them and said: "Now I have a question for you. Who do you think is going to have to clean up this spill?"

They all raised their hands and said in unison, "WE WILL." It still raises the hair on the back of my neck when I think about it. While it is true that we need both political and technical solutions to our many challenges, it is equally true that without a strong constituency for conservation no other "fix" will succeed.

I can say with certainty that young people around the world are more engaged and empowered than ever. Armed with technology and social media, they are finding that they do indeed have the power to cast off the barriers of the established order.

Equally exciting, this committed constituency is finally being joined by a private sector that realizes thatthe status quo is unsustainable. According to a United Nations Environment Program report, Towards a Green Economy, shifting to a sustainable "green growth economy" would cost 2 percent of global G.D.P. That initial cost would be far outweighed by the return on investment and would offer the opportunity to generate as much growth and employment — or more — as the current business-as-usual scenario. The report predicts that such an economy "outperforms economic projections in the medium and long term, while yielding significantly more environmental and social benefits."

Global investment trends suggest this is already happening. In just three years, the number of signatories to the U.N. Principles for Responsible Investment has soared from about 570 to more than 1000, representing some $30 trillion of assets. Furthermore, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, new investments in clean energy worldwide reached a record $263 billion in 2011, up from $162 billion in 2009. More promising, the social entrepreneurship movement is shifting capital to the places it can do the most good, with significant investment in the future of women and girls.

It is impossible to say whether the world will be better or worse in 2050, but I do believe one common theme will not expire: hope.

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