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THE UN SUMMIT OF THE FUTURE: WHY IT IS NECESSARY

By Tony Diggle


Editor’s Note: This is the first of two articles focusing on the upcoming United Nations’ Summit of the Future conference. Part 2 will appear in our next issue.


On September 22-23, 2024, the United Nations will host the “Summit of the Future” as an adjunct to General Assembly week. The conference will be a high-level event, bringing world leaders together to forge a new international consensus on how we deliver a better present and safeguard the future. 


Very little public attention has been paid to it so far, yet it will be arguably more important than international conferences on specific subjects, such as climate change, biodiversity, health, food security and water, because it will cover all of these topics as part of the conference’s agenda. It will provide a focus around which the prospects for mankind can be assessed.


The actual starting point was the 75th Anniversary of the General Assembly in 2020. But perhaps the first question should be how did it come about that a “Summit of the Future” needed to be called for at such a time. 


Futurists like eras — eras beginning with a stable point from which new parameters can be set. And it’s certainly reasonable to suggest that a new era had begun in 1945 after the shock of World War II with the establishment of the United Nations “to maintain international peace and security and to develop international co-operation in addressing economic, social, cultural and humanitarian problems.” 


Yet even prior to this, the development of nuclear weaponry had given humans the ability to annihilate themselves, and this shadow was overhanging the new era; within twenty-five years other problems seeming to threaten in some measure the whole planet (e.g. population increase, food shortages, scarcity of minerals) had become serious enough to cause "concern about the environment" to become a public issue.


Following the early 1970s, there were a number of major studies on global problems undertaken by, or on behalf, of international agencies such as the three U.N. Palme, Brandt and Brundtland reports. However, one less well-known United Nations study was published earlier than all three of these reports in 1977.


This study, produced by the Swedish economist Wassily Leontief (and others), was entitled: "The Future of the World Economy." The introduction described it in the following terms:


"The objective of the study was to investigate the interrelationships between future economic growth and prospective economic issues, including questions of availability of natural resources, the degree of pollution associated with the production of goods and services, and the economic impact of abatement policies. One question specifically asked by the study was whether the existing and other development targets were consistent with the availability and geographic distribution of resources. To the extent that some resources are limited should the desired growth be modified."


Two of the study's conclusions were equally succinct, as follows:


"The principal limits to sustained economic growth and accelerated development are political, social and institutional in character rather than physical. No insurmountable physical barriers exist within the twentieth century to the accelerated development of the developing regions;


"The most pressing problem of feeding the rapidly increasing population of the developing regions can be solved by bringing under cultivation large areas of currently unexploited arable land and by doubling and trebling land productivity. Both tasks are technically feasible but are contingent on drastic measures of public policy favourable to such development and on social and institutional changes in the developing countries;”


This tells us that at the time the study was written in 1977 there was no insurmountable obstacle to a path being followed which would lead over a foreseeable period of time (the remaining two decades of the twentieth century) to the world's basic economic needs being universally met. 


By 1980, the green revolution had enabled most countries to provide for their expanding populations. Fertility levels fell when family planning became an integral part of a broader strategy: development was the best contraceptive. Figures for natural resources had often been based on "proven" reserves not "actual" reserves. In any case such an approach to development understated the power of human ingenuity in the face of scarcity to use substitutes and develop new ways of doing things.


However, this did not alter the fact that as the new millennium approached, the World Bank estimated that 1.3 billion people were still living in absolute poverty. While the Green Revolution was initially very productive, the intensive use of fertilisers and pesticides left degraded soil and reduced biodiversity in its wake leading to different problems later on. In addition to biodiversity, climate change was becoming of increasing concern and pollution was still on the environmental agenda. 


Thus, looking back with hindsight at the end of the millennium, while progress had been made, the political, social, and institutional factors had certainly proved far stronger than the physical factors in preventing anything like a forward-looking economic equilibrium being reached.


In the year 2000 all 189 United Nations Member States pledged to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. These were set to free their fellow man from “the abject and dehumanising conditions” of extreme poverty, and the coverage of the eight goals was fairly comprehensive dealing with basic needs, health, education, environmental sustainability, and economic development.


As we know the achievements fell far short of this, and in 2015 the MDGs were replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of which more below. But the most cursory examination of the state of the world today reveals that as far as basic needs, international relations and the environment are concerned, huge problems remain, and are getting very pressing indeed.  


It would seem that humankind has the knowledge to solve these problems, but we have collectively not acted to the best of our ability. 


This is not to suggest that humankind is turning a blind eye to these problems. Or that some effort isn’t being made to deal with them. The underlying concern is that these ongoing and fast changing problems are too much for the existing geopolitical and geosocial infrastructure to deal with. Without a functioning infrastructure, civilisation collapses into chaos, with all the casualties and conflicts that come in its wake. 


Yet if we have the consciousness to perceive this possibility, surely we must have some sort of ability to deal with it. And if we could deal with it and reach some sort of moving equilibrium in human affairs, that would be a turning point in our evolution. The question becomes how can we use this consciousness of our situation to consider the future better? How can we improve our use of foresight in our time? Cue September 2020. 



BACKGROUND TO THE SUMMIT OF THE FUTURE

At the UN General Assembly in September 2020, Member States asked for recommendations so that they could better respond to current and future challenges. In September 2021, Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, presented his report, “Our Common Agenda”.


The report was published when the world was just over 18 months into the Covid-19 pandemic, and Mr. Guterres was in no doubt as to the seriousness of humankind’s plight. The opening sentence of his summary was that:


“We are at an inflection point in history…”


and he continued:


“… now is the time to renew the social contract between Governments and their people and within societies.”


There should be more long-term thinking and a transformation of education skills and lifelong learning. 


“It will be important for the United Nations to issue a Strategic Foresight and Global Risk Report on a regular basis, and I also propose an Emergency Platform, to be convened in response to complex global crises.”


“I propose a Summit of the Future to forge a new global consensus on what our future should look like, and what we can do today to secure it.”


A section in the report on values pointed out that economic models continued to assume endless expansion and growth and overlooked the broader systems that sustain life and well-being.


“Absurdly GDP rises when there is overfishing, cutting of forests or burning of fossil fuels. We are destroying nature, but we count it as an increase in wealth.”


There was a “this is what we must do” aspect to much of the report. But the last section of the Chapter 4 began with the sentence:


“Ultimately what matters is results.” 


Looking ahead to adapting the United Nations to a new era, the report stated:


“Some Member States have suggested that the UN … is vital to support the delivery of many global public goods, serving as a venue for collective action, norm development and international co-operation. …


“… the UN System must adapt to play a leading role in a more networked and inclusive world, improving our collaboration and strategic engagement with other actors and forums at the global and regional levels, while also maximising our comparative advantage in service of the people who need us most. …


“It has also been suggested that States could strengthen the high-level week of the Assembly, using it as an opportunity to take decisions and make commitments at the level of Heads of State and Government. …


“… the high-level political forum has emerged as the primary global gathering for sustainable development.”   

 

Three key points emerged from the report: the importance of the role of the United Nations in dealing with global issues; the recognition of the importance of foresight in that role and the need for the political will to enable appropriate action to be taken.


Before considering preparations for the focal summit, the wider current context needs to be explored in a little more detail. 


THE WIDER CONTEXT

Some sort of global strategy for achieving an equilibrium in human affairs by 2050 is now essential. Clear goals and sub-goals to achieve this need to be set.


Climate change alone is one of mankind’s most serious challenges. 2050 is the year by which net carbon emissions need to reach zero if the rise in global average temperature is to be kept below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels: the highest rise that can occur and be commensurate with any sort of orderly human evolution and development. “Net-Zero by 2050” has been a slogan used to galvanise action in this regard. The COP 28 Summit in Dubai in November 2023 reaffirmed this, albeit somewhat weakly. Substantial greenhouse gas emissions cuts need to be made by 2030.


Looking at mankind’s challenges holistically, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were established by the United Nations in 2015 to shape the development of the planet for the next 15 years and eliminate poverty by 2030. Unlike the MDGs, the SDGs were seen as something that all countries were expected to contribute to visibly and were written by consensus involving not just UN or government officials, but a much wider range of representatives from business, non-government organisations, civil society and so on. There is at least some hope that such a foundation can be built on.  


Further to what Mr. Guterres said about economic growth in his report, a team of leading earth scientists have discovered nine critical thresholds hard-wired into the Earth’s environment which they describe in the Planetary Boundaries Model. We have already pushed through six of these defined as: climate change, biosphere integrity, land-system change, freshwater change, biogeochemical flows and novel entities. 


What we need to do as a consequence of this is straightforward: make sure that everyone has their basic needs met, while making sure that mankind as a whole does not exceed his global limits. If mankind could achieve this moving equilibrium, then the objectives for which the United Nations was set up would in their essentials have been achieved. 


The framework for mankind’s challenges to be addressed through collective intelligence and foresight is there. It can only be carried out through a body like the United Nations.


Part 2 will consider the preparations for the Summit of the Future, and what we are likely to see and what we need to see. 


 

Tony Diggle is an information science and management consultant based in London. He completed all the core modules in the MTech in Futures Studies at the University of Houston in 2009 and since 2008 has been an Associate of SAMI Consulting. He is a member of the UK Node of the Millennium Project and London Futurists. Since 2011, he has been a London Business Angel (now under Maven Capital Partners.). He is also a playwright. Three of his plays have been published, and two have been produced on the London fringe. He writes in a personal capacity.


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