Education and Sustainable Development | Best of GMF 2014 | DW | 28.06.2012
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Best of GMF 2014

Education and Sustainable Development

Keynote: Prof. Thomas Pogge, Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs, Yale University, USA.

Development of the human species poses substantial dangers

in terms of new technologies – most obviously weapons of mass destruction – and in terms of environmental change – most obviously global warming and depletion of natural resources.

Life on this planet has existed for 4 billion years, animals for 600 million, humans for 2.5 million years, and for the last 13,000 years we have been the only human species on this earth.

Compared to these periods, the dangers we face are rather immediate. Climate change and resource depletion could bring devastation within a century or two, and major wars could bring irreversible destruction within the next decade.

In these face of these dangers, humanity needs concerted action with intelligent leadership. We don’t have that, and most human beings have a very poor understanding of the key issues.

The immediate reason for this is that the political-economic elites governing this world have much at stake in a continuation of the status quo. They lead very privileged lives. They have short time horizons. They are most able to protect themselves if things go wrong. Directly or indirectly, these elites control the media and the national education systems. And so the basic message we see and hear all around us is that everything is under control, that appropriate measures are being taken, that we should not worry about the sustainability of the human future.

It’s time for us passengers on this Titanic to get worried enough to get a second opinion. What would such a second opinion contain?

It would start with the question sustainability for whom? Already now species are going extinct by the thousands, at the fastest rate in planetary history. Already now, rising sea waters due to melting ice caps will definitely obliterate some island nations by the end of the century. Already now some 18 million human beings die from poverty-related causes each year, accounting for about a third of all human deaths.

While average household income is well over $5000 per person per year, median household income is only about $500 per person per year. Half of the human beings in this world spend their lives on less than $10 a week. I am pretty sure that none of them made it here today – diverse a crowd as we are, we are all in the top half of the human income distribution.

To be sure, as the World Bank keeps reminding us, money buys more in poor countries. So people at the median can buy as much per week as Americans or Europeans can buy with 25 or 30 Dollars or Euros. Still the poorer half is incredibly poor. Though they are 50 percent of the human population, they have not even 3 percent of global household income. And as inequality is increasing rapidly in most countries, the share of the poorer half of humanity has been consistently shrinking throughout the globalization period. The income share of the poorest quarter has declined from 1.16 to 0.78 percent in the 1988-2005 period.


The number of chronically malnutrition increased from 788 million in 1996 to around a billion today. 1996 World Food Summit big promise to halve this number to 394 million by 2015.

2015 sounds familiar? MDG1 dilutes the promise of Rome: promising that the percentage of hungry people among the population of the developing world will be in 2015 no more than half of what it was in 1990. This clever reformulation raises the number of those whose chronic hunger in 2015 will be acceptable from 394 to 596 million. Our leaders won’t achieve this goal either, but at least their failure will look less embarrassing.

No time to speak about solutions. Suffice it to say that we must work on two fronts:

We need better global governance institutions which include the voices of the world’s poorer half.

And we need better global rules that reflect the interests also of the poor majority.

To get there, we must propagate a better understanding of what is really happening in this world, and here the mass media have a crucial role to play.