Monday, September 09, 2013

Opening Remarks at Inauguration Session, United Nations University

Opening Remarks
United Nations University

Professor Dr. David Malone, Rector at UNU,

Professor Dr. Kazuhiko Takeuchi-san, Vice-rector and director of the Peace and Sustainability Institute,

Distinguished government officials,

Fellow members of the diplomatic corps,

UNU students, faculty and staff,

Dear friends,

Good morning. I thank you all for being here. I have prepared a few words with a special dedication to the students that start today a five-week intensive course that will certainly transform your lives in many ways.

Last year I had the privilege of attending the closing event, where students like you presented their group projects to a guest panel of which I was a part of, and it struck me how much knowledge was invested by the participants to create ideas that would not have existed otherwise.

It was a very good example of creation of shared value: to bring your individual strengths together in order to give life to something that you would not have been able to create individually or separately. It is a precise illustration of synergy. I believe this is what you are here to do from now until mid October.

Allow me to share a brief story about my family. My great-grandfather was born in the XIX Century and passed away at the age of 96. My relatives say I inherited his big hands and I guess that’s why I decided not to become a dentist. My two grandmothers are 98 years old. With one of them I speak every Saturday on the phone. I like to ask her for suggestions about how she has managed to live for so long in such good condition, and her reply is always along the lines of how she took care of her health.

It makes me wonder if I conduct myself in the same healthy way or if my circumstances and choices are detrimental to my genetic longevity. It also makes me wonder how different her XX Century was from this XXI Century we live in.

Every year of this XXI Century so far, humanity has produced in excess of 30 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, a figure too big to understand. Simultaneously, the planet has been losing as much as a quarter of a million square kilometers of fertile biomass through deforestation, soil erosion and desertification. To put this figure into context, it is the equivalent of losing all of Japan’s forest coverage every year.

Not only are we releasing excessively large amounts of a highly toxic gas into the very air we breathe, but also the vegetation that could clean such pollution is being reduced at an astoundingly accelerated speed. It makes me wonder how much more human behavior can the planet sustain. We are, clearly, on a collision course.

Science, although limited in its ability to explain the extent of the problem, at least has proof that human-made CO2 emissions in the atmosphere are altering global climatic patterns, disrupting a balance that has remained within a normal range of stability for the last 4 million years. The pace of environmental change is faster than it has occurred at any other period in recorded geological history.


My favorite definition of “conflict” is simply an incompatibility of goals. What I just described is a global conflict that involves all of humankind and also all other forms of life: we cannot continue our collective behavior if we want to survive and thrive as a civilization on the only planet known to science where life exists. This is the greatest and gravest conflict humankind has ever faced, especially due to the vast extent of its consequences.

My favorite definition of peace, paraphrasing Johan Galtung, is

“the ability to transform conflicts empathically, creatively and harmoniously.”

If we assume it as valid, it helps us focus on what is essential in order to transform any conflict, even climate change. The first one is empathy -which is to stand on someone else’s shoes- not only among us humans, but also with other species that are threatened with extinction. The second one is creativity. Einstein said we could not overcome our problems thinking in the same way we did when we fell into them. So we must be creative. And the third one is harmony, or the sensitivity to move towards scenarios of prosperity with the least possible violence or suffering.

Unlike 100 years ago, today there are global citizens that can exercise their leadership towards effectively transforming the most severe global issues. These are the people concerned and involved in issues that go beyond their place of birth, their place of residence or the state that issued their passport. It is the people that understand that what happens in Asia, does not stay in Asia, but affects Africa, Europe and the Americas.

I believe that global citizens share, at least, six characteristics: an understanding of different leadership styles; cultural sensitivity to better adapt to different cultural settings; the capability to facilitate or mediate in situations of conflict; effective communication techniques that allow them to express themselves assertively; negotiation skills; and a sense of global ethics, or clarity about virtue and good in all cultural contexts.

I believe all of you are global citizens, whether you chose to become or not. I also believe that in the course of the coming five weeks, you will come across many situations with your peers where you will realize that you are actively engaging as global citizens dealing with issues that were unfamiliar to you this morning.

What I find most fascinating about global citizenship is that it is an ongoing learning process that is never finished. You can always learn more, study more, listen more, and grow more. Be aware, throughout this academic experience, how much you will be consolidating your global citizenship among your colleagues from different countries, and perhaps most importantly, living in one of the most global cities in the world.

Yesterday’s designation of Tokyo as the hosting city of the 2020 Olympics is a confirmation of its relevance worldwide. Moreover, Fortune magazine ranks Tokyo as the second most global city in the world in terms of the economic impact and political influence of the decisions that are made here by 47 of the largest corporations in the world whose headquarters are located in the city.

Not only Tokyo offers a unique opportunity to expand your global citizenship. According to the Global Peace Index, Japan ranks in the top 10 most peaceful nations on Earth. This is a more remarkable fact considering that 125 million people live in a country that has up to 72% forest coverage, which leaves only a small fraction of the territory for human settlements. Given such high demographic density, it is impressive that the level of conflict and violence is so low in Japan.

What have the Japanese done differently compared to other countries in the world? I leave you with this question so you explore in the coming weeks with your colleagues. I am confident you will discover elements that will enrich your communities back home.


Reflecting back on the definitions of conflict and peace that I introduced before, global citizens shall become mindful that humankind will not be able to transform global conflicts through military force. Every year, the world spends collectively US$1.7 trillion dollars in military armament. This is ten times larger than what the United Nations suggests is necessary every year to invest in climate change adaptation and the completion of the Millennium Development Goals together. To make it more absurd, no climate-related catastrophe can be stopped with weapons.

Even military generals are now confirming what ecologists have been suggesting for decades, that one of the biggest threats to peace and security in the coming years is climate change.

Therefore, what we need is a special kind of peace: a peace with nature. We must recover the planet’s biocapacity and its ability to generate all the natural resources we consume every day in every corner of the world. We must be empathic towards other life forms and preserve the rich forests that still stand, most of which are in developing countries in Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America. We must innovate towards greater energy efficiency, including renewable sources of electricity, smart city technologies to allow for a greater quality of life with a lower demand of energy, and a more efficient management of other non-renewable natural resources and raw materials.

I strongly believe we can do what is required to achieve such peace with nature. I suggest that we can get there through bioliteracy, or the ability to understand the language of life, like the water cycle, the carbon cycle, the fertility process that describes all natural ecosystems, the comprehension of human’s ecological footprint on the planet and the many huge opportunities to develop green infrastructure in a way that is financially, socially and environmentally sustainable.

This is not just wishful thinking. Since 2011, the OECD -Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development- has been proposing green growth as an international policy for economic growth. One day in the near future, green growth will come to us. Let’s not wait for that day. Let’s go to it! Let’s utilize our global citizenship, our leadership skills, techniques, and ethics to take the advantages that green growth represents for this Century.

We are the only generation in human civilization that has faced a global challenge of such proportions. The opportunities for transformation are right before our eyes. All we need is to understand the conflict in order to understand the ways to solve it.

Allow me to share another personal reflection. In two months, my wife will give birth to our first child. If my child has the same genetic longevity of my ancestors, this means he or she will be 87 years old at the turn of the XXII Century. None of us in this room will be alive then, but probably my child will, and more likely, his or her children will too. I am aware that I represent a bridge in my family between the XIX and the XXII centuries. This is why, to me, global environmental change is personal. It is a battle I choose to fight, and I encourage you do the same.

Let me finish with a quote from a book I read last week that made me think of you:

"Inspiration is a magical thing, a productivity multiplier, a motivator. But it won't wait for you. Inspiration is a NOW thing. If it grabs you, grab it right back and put it to work."

Thank you.

Tokyo, Japan
Sept. 9th, 2013

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