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To Champion the Earth


This is the third post I wrote in my capacity as UNEP’s blogger for World Environment Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I’ll be posting all 5 leading up to and throughout Rio+20.

“While you’re still alive, make many friends. While your horse is still alive, see many lands.” –President Tsakhia Elbegdorj of Mongolia, at the Champions of the Earth Award Ceremony.

My horse may have been a multi-ton hunk made of mostly aluminum alloys hurtling through the air at altitudes in excess of 35,000 feet—but I’ve cherished my experience of this far-off land, and I’ve certainly made many friends.

I’ve experienced so much here, and yet the Champions of the Earth Awards resulted in such a memorable evening that the details are still prominent in my mind.

A few hours before the event, UNEP’s Executive Director Achim Steiner held a press conference with all the award recipients. (This was a couple hours after the inauguration of the Global Institute for Green Technology and Employment, which I wrote about yesterday. So you can start to get an idea of how busy we’ve been keeping!)

As the Executive Director said at the press conference, the Champions of the Earth awards are not handed out to the “Mahatma Gandhis” of the world, whose environmental records are inviolate. Instead, they’re given to people who engage continually with sustainability challenges in their immediate surroundings, and who are leaders of change in their respective domains.

“Leadership is about making a difference, even when it is complicated,” Steiner said. “Even when not everyone will applaud you.”

Some award recipients were unable to make the ceremony. Bertrand Piccard, for example, couldn’t be there because he’s busy flying a solar-powered airplane—named the Solar Impulse—from Europe to Africa, in order to demonstrate to the world that aircraft powered only by the sun are within reach.

So that seems like a pretty good reason.

At the press conference, each winner was invited to speak about their work, and afterward they took questions.

It soon became clear that the winners’ level of engagement with sustainability issues is high indeed. Two of the recipients—President Tsakhia Elbegdorj and Samson Parashina—find their very way of life under direct assault by environmental degradation.

Meeting 2012 Champions of the Earth Laureate Samson Parashina

Professor Sander van der Leeuw takes a long view of these challenges, tracing their causes hundreds of years into the past through the lenses of anthropology and archaeology. He warns that innovation always has unintended consequences—that, indeed, for a long time humanity has been innovating merely to address the problems created by the last set of innovations. It’s a self-sustaining feedback loop, and he urges us to exercise extreme caution as we look for new solutions.

Gisele Bündchen presenting the awards

The theme of this year’s World Environment Day—The Green Economy: Does it Include You—makes it even more appropriate that Fàbio Barbosa be counted among the Champions of the Earth. He was among the first bankers to incorporate environmental considerations into risk analysis. Now, others in the field are following his lead.

Achim Steiner ended the press conference with a quote from Barbosa: “The business of business is sustainable business.”

You can watch the Champions speak about their passion in a series of videos on UNEP’s website.

Achim Steiner, Gisele Bündchen, and the award recipients on stage

At the Champions of the Earth Award Ceremony itself, the excitement and enthusiasm was palpable. The pictures in this post are all from the Ceremony—I will let them speak for themselves, except to include a last quote from Achim Steiner:

“The meaning tonight is that everyone out there can make a difference.”

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Andrea permalink
    06/19/2012 7:21 PM

    The question is, how do we motivate everyone to do their part even though they won’t win any awards? How do we encourage the everyday actions at home, at work, in the neighbourhood? How do we bring about the small change that complements what the Champions of the Earth are doing?

    • 06/22/2012 4:24 PM

      And it’s a good one. I think UNEP has the right idea, with emphasizing the connection between environmental benefits and economic benefits. I’ve been saying it a lot recently–we need to promote the idea that respecting the environment isn’t just a nice thing to do; there are also a lot of personal benefits that accompany green practices.

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