Environmental problems can definitely be solved. The joint statement is a message of hope for young people. -- Commemorating the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the Blue Planet Prize: special interview on the joint statement by former laureates -

September 30, 2022

The "Declaration on the Occasion of the 30th Anniversary of the Blue Planet Prize Laureates" was announced at Hamarikyu Asahi Hall on August 25, 2022. What kind of process was involved in formulating the joint statement, written by three former Blue Planet Prize laureates, and what thoughts were put into it? We interviewed Professor Eric Lambin (Belgium), who visited Japan on behalf of the three former laureates.

AThe anxiety among Japanese youth we felt through dialogue. "Let's create a statement that gives them courage."

2019 Laureate Professor Eric Lambin
2019 Laureate Professor Eric Lambin

The "Blue Planet Prize," an international award for the global environment, was established in 1992, the same year that the Earth Summit was held. Since then, the prize has commended those who have contributed to the solution of global environmental problems from the perspective of science and technology. This year, in 2022, a joint statement was written and released by three former laureates to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the prize.

"The first thing we decided on was to make it a positive message. In other words, we wanted not only to identify the problems, but to also express a vision of what we should aim for and to offer solutions on how to achieve that goal."

Such were the words of Professor Eric Lambin (Belgium), one of the co-authors of the joint statement. The joint statement was co-authored by Professor Lambin, a 2019 laureate, Professor Brian Walker (Australia), a 2018 laureate, and Professor David Tilman (USA), a 2020 laureate. The Asahi Glass Foundation also decided to do something new for the 30th anniversary. It was to have the former laureates engage in dialogue with the young people of Japan.

From February to May 2022, the three former laureates participated in online dialogue sessions with the "Youth Environmental Advocacy" project members (hereafter referred to as "youth members"), which was held in parallel with the writing of the laureates' joint statement. Professor Lambin recalls the impression he had at that time.

"What I felt strongly was that young people in Japan are very worried. This was the impression also shared by Professor Walker and Professor Tilman. Therefore, when we wrote the joint statement, we decided to make it something positive that would give them courage."

There is a passage in the joint statement that vividly reflects what the former laureates noticed through the dialogue. The following part points out how to relate to the younger generation.

"Civilizations are defined over the long term and need to have the welfare of future generations as a central goal. We need to listen more carefully to the voice of the young generation and pay attention to their messages. We need to encourage communication across generations and walks of life. We need to talk about the future and make it a subject of widespread debate that works its way up in society, to influence decisions by today's leaders. (Joint statement by the former laureates)

Professor Lambin says that this was a point he wanted to emphasize in particular.

"There were comments from the young people in Japan that even if they wanted to contribute to society, they would be treated as troublemakers. The actions of young people who work for the public good with passion should be respected. Scientists and policymakers should also listen to them and support them. We want young people to support us as well in spreading scientific findings on environmental changes. This is because working together is necessary for problem solving."

This statement only has value when it initiates "action." Raising enthusiasm among young people and having them act together

At the symposium, a discussion was held between Professor Lambin and three youth members.
At the symposium, a discussion was held between Professor Lambin and three youth members.

The Blue Planet Prize was established 30 years ago. Since then, the state of global environmental problems has changed significantly. Global warming has become a well-known fact, and in the past few years in particular, many people, from policymakers to the general public, have taken a keen interest in global environmental issues after seeing frequent occurrences of extreme weather that threaten human lives, such as heat waves and wildfires. The fact that environmental problems have become recognized as a priority issue for humankind was symbolized when Dr. Syukuro Manabe, winner of the first Blue Planet Prize, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2021 for exactly the same reason.

The Asahi Glass Foundation has held lectures and released joint papers and joint statements by laureates on its 10th, 20th, and 25th anniversaries. What was the value of issuing a joint statement this time in 2022, as the state of environmental problems is changing? We asked Professor Lambin.

"It is important not just to set goals, but to initiate action. If this statement encourages someone to take action, no matter how small it may be, or speeds up the implementation of a plan to mitigate climate change, we can say it was useful. There have been a countless number of declarations, pledges, promises, and targets related to the global environment. Some of them have been very good. Declarations that say we must urgently save the earth have been written dozens of times. We must now move beyond such declarations. What is lacking is decisive action." (Professor Lambin)

This joint statement is not intended to convey details about environmental problems, but to rather show how we can approach global environmental challenges and how we can proceed to solve them. This is because these proposals were written with the hope of raising enthusiasm among the general public, especially among young people, and to have them act together.

"For example, if you focus on just one piece of data such as rising carbon dioxide emissions, you might be at a loss as to what to do and think that a solution is impossible. However, if you look at it creatively and from a broader perspective, you may be able to discover various types of options. Perhaps the key to initiating action is to go back and forth between these two approaches -- grasping the actual situation and worrying about it, and taking a bird's eye view and generating hope for solutions." (Professor Lambin)

"Avoid an unwanted future" "Problems will definitely be solved": Bringing together the thoughts and research of the three former laureates

 Professor Brian Walker (left), Professor David Tilman (right)
Professor Brian Walker (left) giving an online lecture at the symposium on August 25. Professor David Tilman (right) spoke via a video message.

After the former laureates met and decided on the outline and direction of the joint statement, Professor Lambin drew up a draft, and Professor Walker and Professor Tilman added to it. All three former laureates then went through the process of polishing the draft before deciding on the final statement. Although the three scholars specialize in different fields, they all agreed on the general outline of the statement. What they differed on was where to place the emphasis.

Professor Walker emphasized the importance of his research theme, "resilience." Resilience in social-ecological systems refers to the capacity to accept change or absorb disturbances without transitioning to another state. Professor Walker also indicated that the point of researching resilience was to know where and how we should change so we are not forced to change in an undesired direction in an ever-changing world. In his lecture at the announcement of the joint statement, the professor told the audience that it was necessary to transform to be prepared for the momentary opportunity between collapse and reorganization.

"When there is a major collapse, a large-scale environmental problem, or a case in which the system does not work well, it is an opportunity for change. However, it is a fleeting opportunity. If we miss it, we risk returning to the past system, and the speed of stagnation and collapse will accelerate. We need to think about how we should change and be prepared so that we do not miss those opportunities." (Professor Walker's symposium lecture)

There is another point that Professor Walker incorporated into the joint statement based on his resilience research. In a world that is constantly changing, it is impossible to predict the future. That is why the professor suggests having multiple visions for the future and to move forward by agreeing to "avoid unwanted futures" without deciding what is best.

On the other hand, Professor Tilman emphasized in the statement that problems can definitely be solved. Professor Lambin recalled that Professor Tillman was the most optimistic and cheerful speaker of the three, and his strong assertion that environmental problems could be solved within 20 to 30 years left a strong impression. In the end, the statement became one that satisfied everyone by reflecting their shared views.

From rational to reasonable. Making choices as "a person" creates a happy future

Professor Lambin answering questions in the interview
Professor Lambin answering questions in the interview

The word "values" appears repeatedly in the statement. In particular, the last sentence of the statement, which mentions moral values, is very impactful.

"Our future needs to be defined by the moral values we want to enshrine in our human existences. (From the joint statement by the former laureates)

Professor Lambin explained why the statement referred to the importance of values.

"The Industrial Revolution was a revolution that began with technology. Technology came first, and we tried to do whatever we could with that technology for development. This certainly led to the advancement of civilization and the prosperity of humankind, but at the same time, it led to the spread of individualism and materialism. I believe that now we are starting to see the limitations of this form of capitalism, which encapsulates the idea that the possession of material things is a goal in itself. In reality, the most important approach should be to envision a desirable future from a moral viewpoint and to proceed toward that goal. The key is not to be swayed by technology, but to think about what kind of society we should create based on core values."

Professor Lambin's idea of "core values" is included in the beginning of the joint statement. Empathy, justice, sustainability, and knowledge -- these are values that we humans should cherish as human beings, and could be referred to as a sense of ethics. Professor Lambin also said he wants to emphasize the difference between "rational" and "reasonable."

"To be rational, from a scientific and technical point of view, is to do things in the most efficient and rational way without having a moral goal to aim for. To be reasonable, on the other hand, is to first define desirable end goals from an ethical standpoint and act towards these goals. The aim is to set goals based on moral values and achieving those goals in a reasonable manner. It is important to be aware of the difference." The question of whether to be "rational" or "reasonable" has a great impact on how developing countries grow. When a society develops based on ethical values, different cultural and social backgrounds will lead to different paths, and each society will develop in diverse ways that they find most desirable. If they simply aim for rational development, they will follow the same path that the developed countries of Europe and North America have taken. This is the path of development that has caused major environmental problems.

"To achieve diversity in the paths of development, we should avoid the trap of being simply rational and rather steer toward being reasonable." (Professor Lambin)

Since the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide concentrations have increased more than 50%, and the average global temperature has already risen by more than 1°C. As we now approach a point of no return, we are faced with the need to shift our values as humans. However, we must not forget the words of hope from the former laureates: global environmental problems can be solved. Be optimistic and creative. We will surely be able to realize a desirable future by working together.


Prof. Eric Lambin
Professor, Université catholique de Louvain
George and Setsuko Ishiyama Provostial Professor, Stanford University

He has clarified the land use changes taking place on a global scale, the effects on ecosystems and the effectiveness of policies, using satellite remote sensing technologies and his original method of time-series analysis. From early on, he has pointed out that land use changes are causing adverse effects globally on natural systems. He has explained the relationship between economic activities and land use by linking socioeconomic data. His research activities have significantly influenced how public authorities and private enterprises develop land use policies for conserving forests. Those research findings have provided scientific support for making the most of forest certification programs, for implementing green purchasing commitments, and for promoting green procurement. He has made great contributions by stimulating the adoption of concrete interventions and practices to improve the sustainability of socioeconomic activities from the individual to the global scales. He was awarded the 2019 Blue Planet Prize.

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