press summaryGoat Island Declaration, 1 January 02000
Humankind is entering an era of population and consumption overshoot, characterised by diminishing resources and nature's services such as clean air, water and oceans. We are leaving a world of plenty behind, a world that saw three transitions in human wellbeing: 1) longer and better lives, 2) diseases of old age, 3) new health risks due to changed life styles. In the fourth transition, we are facing further health risks arising from the overloading of the biosphere. Left to free market forces, it could destroy the world we know. At the dawn of the third millennium, eight concerned scientists (names and details shown below the declaration) gathering in northern New Zealand, are calling on world leaders, administrators and policy makers to redirect economic and social investment towards sustainability, shared responsibility, equitability and a long-term outlook.

January 1, 02000


Getting the Gist: Think Future, Act Present

Ecological Sustainability and Equity as Prerequisites to Health

  • Humankind, at the dawn of the new century, is at an unfamiliar and major crossroads. For the first time, we are living beyond the planet's means.
  • The resultant decline in Earth's life-support systems will, if unarrested, jeopardise human wellbeing, health and, perhaps, survival. The health and survival of many other species and their ecosystems will also be jeopardised.
  • Human societies have, over two centuries, undergone three great transformations in death rates, birth rates, life-spans, disease patterns, and profiles of risks to health. These demographic, epidemiological and health-risk transitions arose from broad underlying social, economic and technological changes.
  • We must now achieve, with some urgency, the Sustainability Transition. This will require more deliberate and strategic action than did the previous three transitions. "Sustainability" refers, crucially, to maintaining the biosphere's physical, biological and ecological systems. 
  • This Sustainability Transition will encompass radically new technologies, the replacement of "consumption" with "use and recycling", a redirection of social investment towards meeting human needs and community development, and a fundamental commitment to global equity and shared responsibility. 
  • These changes should be pursued at all levels - international, national, community and personal. Actions taken now can ensure both present improvements and future sustainability.
  • The rapid rise of information technology and biotechnology, if directed to socially and environmentally beneficial ends via societal modulation of commercial activity, holds great promise as part of the Sustainability Transition.
  • Throughout this Transition, measures of human wellbeing and health will provide a central, integrating, index of how well we are managing our natural and social environments.

Note to the reader

The idea of the need for a "sustainability transition" has been widely discussed. Various other documents - for example, those dealing with Deep Ecology, "weak" and "strong" sustainability, human society's "ecological footprint", The Natural Step, and the Clock of the Long Now - have recognised the problem of humankind's "overshoot" of Earth's environmental carrying capacity and its myriad consequences for Homo sapiens and other species.

We offer a distinctive formulation about the Sustainability Transition. We emphasise the central importance of the impact of deteriorating environmental conditions upon human wellbeing and health. This impact, we argue, should be the criterion for concern, analysis and for social and personal action. After all, there is little point to seeking to sustain natural and social environments unless it ensures human wellbeing and health.

The authors gathered for the Millennium Dawn 2000 at the Goat Island Marine Reserve, Leigh, New Zealand (GPS position: S36o16.16, E174o.47.90) - one of the first sites to witness the event. During four days of discussions, swimming, hiking, wine-tasting and sunrise-watching this Goat Island Declaration was drafted. In contemplating the environmental significance of the Millennium a particular shared interest in the prospects for human health infused this declaration. 

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"Nobody can save the world, but any of us can help set in motion a self-saving world."

Stewart Brand, 1999: "The Clock of the Long Now"

 Humankind has just lived through a spectacular century. The beginning of the twenty-first century, however, is no mere milestone along an unending path of progress and change. We stand at a crossroads not previously encountered. For the first time in history, at a global level, humankind is overloading the planet and its life-support systems - and thereby jeopardising the prospects for human wellbeing, health and survival. For at least that reason we must find, indeed forge, an ecologically sustainable path into the future.

During the twentieth century the average human lifespan doubled, world population quadrupled, average incomes quadrupled, the proportion of people living in cities rose from one in ten to one in two, and annual emissions of carbon dioxide (the main anthropogenic greenhouse gas) increased twelve-fold. Overall, the global economy increased twenty-fold, accompanied by rising levels of material consumption and waste generation - and a continued widening of the gap between rich and poor. Meanwhile, tragedy and trauma have persisted. Wars and civil conflicts killed an estimated 250 million during the twentieth century - over ten times more than in the nineteenth century. Great disasters killed at least another 100 million.

The processes of urbanisation, increased human mobility, changing family structures, environmental degradation, and the various consequences of economic globalisation are adding new challenges, opportunities and stresses to human existence. Meanwhile, revolutions in information technology and genetic biotechnology are producing radical, and hopefully beneficial, social and economic change. We enter the twenty-first century with previously unimaginable stocks of resources, knowledge and technologies. New knowledge is currently doubling every half-decade; computing power has increased several hundred thousand-fold in the past four decades.

We have also learnt the need for precaution in relation to how our changing practices may pose risks to health. Experiences such as adding lead to petrol and housepaint, of manufacturing and using asbestos products, of popularising cigarette smoking and of building nuclear power plants have all been shown to be detrimental to human health. More recently we have wondered about the health consequences of mobile phone usage, and we have discovered the health hazards resulting from use of chlorofluorocarbons (with their ozone-destroying property). As the scale of environmental hazard shifts from local physical and toxicological changes to large-scale disruption of atmospheric systems and the biosphere's ecosystems, so the need for a precautionary approach increases.

There are lengthening shadows on the landscape. Globally, we are at risk of being the first generation to transmit a negative environmental legacy to future generations. Various large-scale environmental indicators have deteriorated in recent decades. Scientists estimate that humankind is now in "ecological deficit budgeting", living one-third beyond the planet's natural resource means. The combined impact of human numbers, environmentally-intensive technologies and escalating, waste-generating, consumption is disrupting various of Earth's great life-support systems, such as the climate system, stocks of biodiversity, freshwater supplies, and the viability of food-producing ecosystems on land and in the world's oceans, while also contaminating terrestrial and marine environments with persistent organic chemicals. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for example, foresees a wide range of adverse health consequences  resulting from changes in the mean conditions and variability in the world's climate - including altered patterns of infectious disease, regional malnutrition, the impacts of extreme weather events, and the many health consequences of population displacement.

We now face the fourth great transition in modern human ecology: the Sustainability Transition. Via this transition we will restore and maintain the stocks and the functioning of the biosphere and thus ensure the sustainability of human wellbeing and health. "Sustainability" means having an economic structure within which we consume only as much as the natural environment produces and we generate only as much waste as that natural environment can absorb. It is important that sustainability is pursued in ways that allow the needs of poorer, non-industrialised societies to make gains in the material conditions of living. This will require a greater international commitment to the sharing and redistribution of knowledge and resources. In all societies, alternative energy sources must be developed, along with radical gains in energy efficiency, such that the solar, wind and water power that abounds in nature can supply most of our needs. Democratic government and other civil institutions must "represent the future to the present", including modulating the predominantly short-term creativity of private-sector capital in the interests of long-term sustainability.

Over the past two centuries, human societies around the world have experienced (albeit unevenly) three great, linked, transitions in human ecology. The transitions have been: the demographic transition, the epidemiological transition, and the risk transition. Those three transitions have shifted human populations: (i) to increased life expectancies and, hence, "older" populations, (ii) to a predominance of the diseases of later adulthood, and (iii) to further changes in the profile of environmental and lifestyle risks to health because of the ensuing social, material, and behavioural changes accompanying economic development.

The Sustainability Transition will differ from the three abovementioned transitions in that it will not just happen. Rather, we must make it happen. The necessary changes should be pursued at all levels - international, national, community and personal. This Sustainability Transition will encompass radically new technologies, the replacement of "consumption" with "use and recycling", a redirection of social investment towards community development ("social capital") and human fulfilment ("human capital"), and a fundamental commitment to globally equitable participation and shared responsibility.

A key motivation for making the transition will be the perceived risks to human wellbeing and health from our overloading of the biosphere. Those risks, meanwhile, are accompanied by further risks to health from ongoing radical changes in our social structures and demographic profile. Therefore, over time, measures of human wellbeing and health will provide an integrating index of how well we are managing our natural and social environments.

The Sustainability Transition will require a new level of ecological literacy, long time horizons, international cooperation, and redistributive justice. The rapid rise of information technology and biotechnology, if directed to socially beneficial ends via societal modulation of commercial activity, holds great promise as part of the Sustainability Transition.  This understanding of  "sustainability" and its links to human health may provide an unusual stimulus for social progress, harmony and equity.

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The Goat Island Team (from left to right)
GIST group photo
Adrienne Taylor adrienne.taylor@clear.net.nz environmental manager
Judith Healy j.healy@lshtm.ac.uk health policy analyst
Tony McMichael t.mcmichael@lshtm.ac.uk environmental epidemiologist
Henk Slettenhaar henk@siliconvalley.ch information technologist
Eva Hansen  ehansen@iprolink.ch international policy analyst
Rachael Taylor rachael.taylor@lion-nathan.com.au human resource executive
Lorraine Wilson-Rowan lwilson@bluewin.ch crisis counsellor and family planner
Tord Kjellstrom t.kjellstrom@auckland.ac.nz environmental & occupational epidemiologist
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