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Stanford Report, June 14, 2000

'The world needs you to lead in safeguarding the global environment'

This is the prepared text of an address by Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary-General, at the 109th Annual Commencement.

President [Gerhard] Casper, Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Students:

It is great to be here this morning and to be with you, the Class of 2000 -- the millennium generation. Congratulations on your big day.

And congratulations to all the family and friends who helped you reach this milestone.

For a United Nations Secretary-General, a crowd this size [23,000] is usually a sign that something has gone wrong. I tend to think of massive flows of refugees, street protests against repressive governments, an army massing for battle --- or even a recent experience in Seattle! But you have gathered for a celebration, one which you have richly earned.

I have been here only a few hours, but already I can tell that the Stanford "farm" has produced yet another bumper crop: engineers, educators, entrepreneurs and others who will soon make their mark on the 21st century. I know you are eager to get out into the world. But before you make your exit, let us dwell for a moment on the place you are about to leave behind and what it symbolizes.

For the past several years, this campus has been your habitat. It has sheltered you and nurtured your growth. It has watered you with the rain of ideas, filled your lungs with the fresh air of new experiences, and helped you plant roots in the fertile soil of human knowledge and the world's store of history and lore.

The species here have formed an intricate web of coexistence. I don't mean the birds and the squirrels, but rather the human types that make up your community: a wonderfully diverse student body; the professors and administrators; and of course the locals and old-timers who, like California redwood trees, see you come and see you go. Together, you make up a living, breathing ecosystem.

Whatever your individual experiences, yours has been a shared fate.

The Stanford community has evolved, prospered and suffered as a single, integrated environment. And chances are you would wish it to be around for future generations -- perhaps your own children -- to enjoy.

The same is true of the larger human community. We thrive and survive on planet earth as a single human family. As Benjamin Franklin said at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately." His words still resonate. In an age of globalization, our interdependence deepens with every passing day. And one of our main responsibilities is to leave to successor generations a sustainable future.

It is in that spirit that I wish to use this occasion to make a special plea to you -- and through you, to all your generation. The world needs you to take the lead in safeguarding the global environment.

I have spent a good part of the past year analyzing the state of humankind and preparing a report on the challenges that face us at the dawn of the new millennium.

The report is called "We the Peoples," and you can find it on the United Nations website. It was an attempt to step back from the press of daily crises and to reflect on the broader, long-term direction in which we are headed. I have, in a sense, submitted a term paper to the world's people. I sincerely hope you will read it -- and please don't hesitate to give me a grade and let me know what you think!

The report finds that we human beings do have much to be grateful for. Most people today can expect to live longer than their parents. They are better nourished, they enjoy better health, they are better educated, and on the whole they face more favorable economic prospects.

But there is also widespread deprivation and despair. The century just ended was disfigured, time and again, by ruthless conflict. Grinding poverty and striking inequality persist within and among countries even amidst unprecedented wealth. Diseases, old and new, threaten to undo years of progress.

Sad to say, much of this picture was very familiar. But I was startled by what we found when we looked at the global environment.

We have long been aware that unsustainable practices remain deeply embedded in the fabric of our daily lives. What was shocking was not so much the state of the environment, as the state of the debate on the environment. In a nutshell, the need for sustainable development is failing to register on the political radar screen.

That is something that should concern us all, not least because half the world's jobs depend directly on the sustainability of ecosystems.

Scientists and others who study these matters may have disagreements here and there; that is the nature of inquiry. But they are unanimous in saying we face extraordinarily grave challenges.

They say that if freshwater consumption trends continue, by the year 2025 two out of every three people on earth will live in "water stressed" countries. They say that if population and land-use trends continue, the world will face a real threat to global food security by mid-century. And they say that if emissions and energy trends continue, global warming will only accelerate.

Already, we can see portents of a world that has failed to take climate change seriously. As the warming trend has accelerated, weather patterns have become more volatile and extreme. Economic losses from natural disasters in 1999 alone totaled approximately $100 billion -- more than the cost of all such disasters in the 1980s.

We are in a race against time. I don't want to sound like "chicken little" nor do I want to "cry wolf." One thing we have learned over the years is that doom-and-gloom scenarios do not produce solutions.

Still, the inescapable global reality is that we are plundering our children's future. There have been some honorable exceptions.

Legally binding treaties have been adopted covering climate change, biodiversity and depletion of the ozone layer. Voluntary efforts by valiant individuals and citizens groups have spread public awareness.

But for the most part, our responses have been too few and too little. And yet, the debate languishes.

Let me give you an example. This coming September, the world's leaders will come to the United Nations in New York for the Millennium Summit. I can guess what you are thinking: that this summit will produce more hot air, and make global warming even worse.

My concern is quite different; I am not worried about there being too much talk, but that on this subject there will be too little. During the nearly 18 months of discussion in the General Assembly about which subjects to include on the summit's agenda, environmental concerns were hardly mentioned at all.

Policy-makers seem to be giving the environment frighteningly low priority. Perhaps they are overwhelmed by other concerns. Perhaps they are deliberately avoiding tough choices.

Perhaps they need to listen to their own environment ministers. More than 100 of them just met in Sweden and agreed that we do have at our disposal today the human and material resources we need to achieve sustainable development.

Even so, all too often a collective blindfold seems to descend on those in a position to make a difference, obscuring the dangerous path we are on. All too often, management of the environment is viewed as a luxury, not a necessity. All too often, the issue is framed as an intractable conflict between economy and ecology, when in fact sustainable development offers a road map for reconciling the two. All too often, it is thought that safeguarding the environment means giving up the fight against poverty or setting aside other vital concerns.

But unless we find a way to sustainably manage the environment, poverty will grow more entrenched, and even peace may remain out of reach.

In many cases, we already know what needs to be done. The Kyoto Protocol on climate change can begin to control carbon emissions -- if it is ratified and implemented, not least by the United States, the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases. This would be an enormous gift to the entire planet.

The idea of "green accounting" is one whose time has come. Today, when factories produce goods but in the process pump pollutants into rivers or the atmosphere, national accounts measure the value of the goods -- but not the costs inflicted by the pollutants. Green accounting would change this, and help enforce the "polluter pays" principle.

We can provide more funding for research into alternative energy sources such as fuel cells. We can remove environmentally harmful subsidies. We can improve the ability of governments themselves to manage environmental issues.

This is just some of what might be done now, based on current knowledge. And that is where you come in. Yes, the world needs you to go down the road and join the high-tech revolution and help bridge the digital divide. Yes, the world needs you to contribute and do your best, no matter what your chosen field. But I would ask you all to consider what you can do to help build a sustainable future for all this planet's inhabitants in 50 or 100 years' time. Stanford is renowned for its entrepreneurial spirit. Surely, within this stadium, lies the potential for breakthroughs that will take us beyond business as usual. Remember that corporations have made lots of money polluting the environment, but they can make much more cleaning it up. That is the challenge I set for you -- the future corporate leaders in our midst today.

The chemists and biologists among you can provide sound information and analysis to fill the knowledge gap. The business majors among you can bring a stronger sense of global corporate citizenship to the private sector. The teachers among you can help promote public awareness. All of you, as consumers, can help protect the environment through your individual choices. And as citizens and voters, you can put pressure on governments not only to reach environmental agreements but also to enforce them.

Am I telling you to choose a life of activism and engagement in public affairs? Yes, I am! Your generation must improve upon my generation's record. It will be up to you, ultimately, to build, and to live by, the new ethic of global stewardship that is so badly needed.

Fifty-five years ago, world leaders gathered just down the road from here, in San Francisco, for a crucially important conference at a turning point in world affairs. They created a wonderful machine, a versatile instrument for peace, justice and human well-being. It falls to us -- the peoples and nations of the world -- to make good on its promise.

The founders did not dwell on the environmental threats. Back then, ecology was a subject confined to biology. Back then, the word cyberspace did not even appear in science fiction, and the world's first computer had just been built. It filled a large room, bristled with 18,000 electron tubes and had to be rewired for each new task.

We know what changes have occurred since then. Some of you may well be sending each other e-mails with your Palm Pilots even as I speak!

Ours is a new world of collapsing borders and connections among people. It can be bewildering and intimidating. Some of you may be apprehensive about moving out into it. But it is time for you to blossom or take wing.

The great American poet Robert Frost once wrote that "education is hanging around until you've caught on." My friends, I have no doubt that you have caught on -- to the nature of life in the global village and to your own natures as well. You have got a Stanford education, one of the greatest gifts a young person in this world can have. Now take it and make it work for all of us. Thank you very much, and have a wonderful day. SR