Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Revisiting the United Nations

On this chilly day in January, I find myself sitting in the Trusteeship Council Chambers of the United Nations. A very long time ago, back when I was still in high school, I had a chance to tour the U.N. with my family. A trip to New York was certainly an adventure for someone from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and the chance to see the institution that represented the world was exciting. I didn’t know anyone who had been to the U.N. I still remember looking at all the flags of the world in awe and being thrilled to see stamps from so many countries, my being a semi-serious stamp collector and all. I don’t remember much else about what we saw on the tour, but at the time, I doubt that I had a good sense of the wide array of roles that the U.N. plays in the world.

I am no longer new to U.N. processes, having attended the international climate conferences for the past five years, as readers of this blog know. Contacts that I have made through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meetings, especially Dr. Gillian Bowser of Colorado State University, led to my becoming involved with the National Science Foundation-funded Global Women Scholars Network. That group signed on as a member of the Women’s Major Group (WMG) that is working on the post-2015 goals for sustainable development. The WMG goes back to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit during which women were recognized as one of the nine major groups of civil society. These groups are analogous to the constituency groups of NGOs in the UNFCCC process. (I have previously written about my role in the Research and Independent NGOs or RINGOs. See, for instance: And if you haven’t noticed, all U.N. functions use a lot of acronyms!)

Although I am new to the SDG process and meetings, I am not new to the themes. I teach a course on sustainability and redefining prosperity, and last year, I served as the co-chair for our year-long In Focus theme on sustainability. One of the main topics being considered at the U.N. this week is how climate change should factor into the next round of SDGs – yet another reason why there is some logic to my being here. But also, long story short, due to it still being our break between semesters and my relative proximity to New York City, I was invited to represent the Global Women Scholars Network at this event.

Over the past several weeks, the WMG members have been circulating drafts of several documents for both OWG7 and the upcoming OWG8 at which ecosystems and biodiversity are key themes. This group’s documents for OWG7 can be found at  As these documents circulated back and forth via emails and “the cloud” (just how did people collaborate before the internet), it became clear to Gillian and I that there is need for the inclusion of more sound science to strengthen arguments and to formulate sound recommendations.

So here I am – almost 4 decades later – at the U.N. sitting in the Seventh Session of the General Assembly Open Working Group (OWG7) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The theme today is Sustainable Consumption and Production including chemicals and waste. Chemicals, natural resources, conservation, natural resources, environmental and human health, toxicity, biodiversity, climate change, poverty eradication, gender equality and women’s rights – a career’s worth of scholarly interests plus many more – all converging at once. This is a far cry from an early interest in seeing the world vicariously through stamp collecting.

My day started with attending a Women’s caucus at the U.N. Foundation (well, after catching the 4:45 a.m. bus into NYC). The conference room was filled with women from around the world, each representing a different NGO. We only gave brief introductions, but I may have been the only “academic” in the room. The time was used to review presentations that would be made on behalf of the WMG during the day and to plot strategies for documenting the events and for outreach to policymakers. I felt very welcomed, and was impressed with the wide range of knowledge, the humor, and the passion that was clearly evident in the room. But I also felt uncomfortable with the strong anti-chemical, anti-technology vibes I was picking up.

It is here that the worlds of my scholarly interests collide. I was trained as a biochemist, coming up through chemistry-based academic departments. I was also a graduate student in plant sciences at the time many of the new genetic-based technologies were first being applied. I follow advances in fields such as genetic engineering, synthetic biology, green chemistry quite closely. At the same time, I work in circle of conservationists and environmental activists, many who are quite chemophobic and typically anti-GMOs, so things feel a bit schizophrenic for me at times. I wasn’t surprised to hear concerns about nuclear energy, genetic engineering, environmental estrogens, and large-scale biofuel production from this group, but wasn’t expecting a debate over how synthetic biology is defined. Many concluded that it is far worse that genetic engineering. Sigh. I teach that topic with some enthusiasm.

Because the Global Women’s Scholar Network does not yet have official credentials for the SDG process, I am actually here under the auspices of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO). During the online drafting of the position papers, I learned that my comment noting that "in order to move forward and to sound credible, we can’t be against everything" was a minority opinion. So when the WMG presentation for today included a statement about a goal of zero hazardous chemicals by 2030, I cringed inside, but remained silent. Because I was new at the caucus, I played the role of observer-learner.

As I was getting my security clearance at the U.N., there was another person new to the process. Somewhat ironically, it turns out that he was representing the International and American Chemical Councils. He asked what group I was representing, and when I said the “Women’s Major Group”, there was a heavy sigh. I quickly added that I was trained as a chemist, but the conversation was over.

The official morning sessions began with the co-chairs for OWG7 hearing presentations and interventions from representatives of the Major Groups and other stakeholders. There are nine Major Groups in all, but not all were represented today. Speakers represented the interests of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, the Children and Youth Major Group, Indigenous Peoples, and the WMG. The Business and Industry Major Group representative (yes, the guy I met at security) spoke on behalf of the Chemical Councils – the only voice not speaking about the evil impacts of chemicals on people and the environment. In a way, I felt sorry for him. Fortunately, one of the co-chairs of the session said what I had wanted to say at the caucus, that essentially all chemicals can be hazardous at the right dose or under the right condition, so total elimination of them is essentially impossible.

I still believe that technological innovations are key in helping us to attain food security, develop clean, renewable energy sources, find cures for diseases, address climate change, clean up toxic environments, and address at least some of the social and economic inequities on our planet. Somehow, we have to find ways to balance the emotional responses and fears of chemicals and technology with evidence-based decision-making. The passion of civil society is essential for pushing governments to act, but the policy decisions have to be practical, and hopefully, based on science. As one plenary speaker said later in the morning, we need system innovations, not system optimizations.

I have to find ways to convey this message such that my invitation to participate with the WMG isn’t revoked. I care about the same issues that they do, as I fully understand the disparate impacts that unsustainable practices, poverty, lack of access to education, climate change, water shortages, and environmental toxins have on women. But I also know that we can’t solve these problems by going back in time in terms of technology. Neither these conversations, nor finding the path to a truly sustainable future given all of our global challenges, will be easy. Yet, as I listened to the dialog amongst representatives from nations around the world – nations that used to be bitter enemies in war that are now trying to work collaboratively to tackle these challenges – I felt a sense of hope.

Leaving the building, I saw images of U.N. peace-keeping forces helping villagers build a community well, of the Holocaust, of melted and fused metal items found at Hiroshima, children’s posters on Human Rights, and an automatic rifle converted into a musical instrument. These were all powerful and conflicting reminders of how complex the world is, and how far I have come since that first trip to the U.N. so many years ago.

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