Living Together


The Charter of the United Nations, signed in 1945, did not address concerns for the natural environment. Neither the word itself, nor a doctrine of environmentalism appears in the founding document. Yet the protection of the environment affects the preservation of the entire planet. It is also a subject closely related to provisions of the Charter, since a sustainable environment decidedly contributes to the assurance of the well-being of its inhabitants. United Nations initiatives are thus critical to finding solutions to most environmental challenges. Over the years, this question has become increasingly important in General Assembly deliberations and has been featured in its resolutions—a development I very much welcome.

A series of conventions addressing the environmental issues have followed, including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES, 1973), the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal (1989), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992), the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, 1992), the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD, 1994) and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (2001), to name a few. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was established in 1972, and in 2009 I was honoured to become its Goodwill Ambassador.  The number of such conventions and their importance illustrate how the United Nations has successfully managed to take the situation under control.  

In my opinion, the best example and the most pronounced success of the United Nations initiative in the sphere of environmental protection are embodied in the history of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, signed in 1987. After a series of international negotiations, which proceeded at an exemplary pace over just a few years, the United Nations put in place measures to phase out most of the gases contributing to the thinning of the ozone layer and provided mechanisms to oversee their implementation. There is no doubt that ozone depletion threatens nothing less than the existence of life on our planet. Today, the “ozone hole”, as it is called sometimes, is slowly recovering, and there is hope that the solution to this problem is found. As many as they are, these achievements, however, must not divert our attention from the two major persistent problems.

Obviously, our first challenge is climate change. A ground-breaking summit, the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC, will be held in Paris in December 2015. Everyone’s hopes and efforts are aimed at the success of this milestone event. Previous meetings, however, were rather disappointing, at least in regard to the issues addressed and the inability of the global community to find solutions to existing problems. Still, climate change clearly remains the environmental challenge of the twenty-first century. Whatever the outcome of the Paris Climate Conference, it will be only a beginning, a step in a process which must continue through the coming decades.

There are several explanations of why negotiations on climate change have proceeded with so much difficulty. Among them are the changing geopolitical situation, as well as certain economic conditions and their major implications. These challenges arise largely from the fact that climate change affects almost all aspects of the life of our societies. This should force us to rethink, in my opinion, our approach to environmental protection. The task is not simply to conserve flora and fauna, but to assure the best possible conditions on our planet for a thriving humanity—which brings us back to the founding of the United Nations and to the content and meaning of the Charter. This is where the second problem, perhaps even more imperative than the first, comes to mind.  

To an extent, the true challenge of this century is finding a way to live together. It begins with becoming acquainted with one another and embracing our differences. Hatred and conflict feed off of false images of the Other. Therefore, when we become acquainted with the Other, recognizing his or her essential humanity, we take a further step towards reconciliation, tolerance and peace. In this regard, the United Nations plays a crucial role in creating space for continuing dialogue.

Bringing people together is also one of the objectives of my own rather modest efforts. This is particularly true with my latest film, HUMAN, which can be seen as a culmination of my work. The film touches upon the history of the United Nations, featuring its two turning points, the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000.

In fact, HUMAN draws upon Earth from Above, an aerial photography project, designed to capture the planet’s beauty, that I began 20 years ago, following the first summit in Rio de Janeiro. It is for that work I was nominated UNEP Goodwill Ambassador. As we all know, that summit laid the foundations for sustainable development and outlined a strategy for environmental struggle for years to come. Although overly used, the term "sustainability" defined in a fundamental way the interdependence between environmental and social matters. Sustainable development is not just about saving butterflies and flowers, it is about securing a sustainable existence for the men and women who inhabit the planet—men and women who are both the cause of and solutions to the problems that afflict humanity.

Similarly, HUMAN draws inspiration from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These fundamental goals, facilitated by Kofi Annan on the eve of the twenty-first century, resolutely introduced the United Nations initiative into the daily life—one of worries, difficulties and hopes—of (at the time) 6 billion inhabitants of our planet. I wanted to give these 6 billion people a face, a voice. This was the beginning of my project, entitled 6 Billion Others (now called 7 Billion Others), that features testimonials of thousands of people from every continent, creating a living portrait of humanity.

To an extent, HUMAN is the synthesis of these two projects. It appears at a time when the MDGs are evolving into the sustainable development goals (SDGs), as the United Nations attempts to integrate environmental issues with the social and development agendas. They are not mutually exclusive, but rather complement one another. I am convinced that environmentalism is a new form of humanism.

In the process of adopting and implementing the MDGs and SDGs, I have noticed a growing concern for how to engage more people to participate in United Nations initiatives. In my opinion, this is one of the major issues for the years to come. I hope that the United Nations will find a better, more direct way to reach out to the billions of inhabitants of our planet—although I understand how challenging this task might be.

The conversation should not be limited to negotiations between leaders and "decision-makers", it should include everyone. Yet often, we hear only from those who have the knack or the social standing to be heard. How many other voices remain silent? How many will succeed in being heard? In HUMAN, as in 7 Billion Others, my goal is to give a voice to people we don’t usually hear from—the voiceless, the nameless, people who don’t make it onto magazine covers, but who are nevertheless exceptional. Often, although underestimated—or rather because of that—they carry a powerful message, which is as genuine as their true selves, since their words have not yet been eroded by the media filter.

For these testimonials not to vanish, they need to reverberate. We must make an effort to grasp each of these pronounced statements and reflect upon them, repeat them, respond to them, or maybe even refute them.

I also hope that all of us will continue these conversations with actions, by committing ourselves, each in our own way, to a better world, in which we all can live together. Each of us can do this in our own way, by smiling at strangers, by speaking to one’s elderly neighbours or helping them to carry their groceries, by financially supporting one cause or another or by becoming involved in an organization. The United Nations is also undergoing a fundamental evolution, particularly by increasingly liaising with civil society and with non-governmental organizations (NGOs). By recognizing their expertise, role and importance, the United Nations helps to invigorate an essential sector of our society, enabling new voices to become stronger and to be heard. I have been able to see this phenomenon in all the work that my foundation has conducted in conjunction with the United Nations, and I am convinced that this relationship with NGOs is going to only strengthen in the years to come.

In conclusion, I would like to quote Paul Claudel, who wrote, "It is not my thorns that protect me, says the rose. It is my fragrance." In the same way, it is not the dire predictions of environmental Cassandras that will save the world. It is our ability to be moved. It is also our ability to see the beauty that lives in each one of us and, sometimes, to let it blossom by opening ourselves to others and leaving our hearts to speak of love. Love, broadly understood as a form of empathy and benevolence, is the foundation of all social life, the cornerstone of "living together". Love is revolutionary. It is love that will change our world. That is what I am trying to say in HUMAN. That is what I have always tried to say.