How One Tragic Night 30 Years Ago Inspired This Man to Make the Earth a Better Place

“Our future will be the result of human choices.”

This fall, the United Nations is preparing to launch its 17 Sustainable Development Goals—an extraordinary action plan to solve the world’s biggest problems by 2030. Over the coming months, we’ll be connecting with The Local Globalists: 17 nonprofit founders, entrepreneurs, and social innovators who are working every day, wherever they are, to turn one of the U.N.’s #globalgoals into reality.

Goal 17: Revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.

On the night of December 2, 1984, at the United Carbide India Limited pesticide plant in Bhopal, a gas leak exposed more than 500,000 people to methyl isocyante and other lethal chemicals. Known as the world’s worst industrial disaster, the leak caused over 16,000 deaths and 558,000 injuries. Devastated about this impact on his hometown, sustainability expert Paul Shrivastava was determined to make industrial and environmental crisis management his life’s work.

Since being named executive director of the international research platform Future Earth in February, Shrivastava’s seemingly insurmountable goal is to help unite the 8,000-plus scientific disciplines in order to come up with collaborative solutions for global environmental change. As a scientific transdisciplinary collaboration hub and “federation” of more than 23 scientific projects, Future Earth is tackling diverse issues—from analyzing global water systems and ecosystem changes, to predicting humanity’s future on Earth. By 2025, they hope to see people thriving in a sustainable and equitable world.

Future Earth was formed in 2012 when participants at Rio+20, the United Nations’ Conference on Sustainable Development, came to the realization that they needed science to improve sustainable performance. Acting as an umbrella over formerly closed environmental projects such as the International Global Human Footprint Project and the international biodiversity science program Diversitas, Future Earth creates an integrative playing field in which scientists pose questions, analyze problems, share their knowledge, and then design and produce solutions on the ground, offering them directly to stakeholders.

The biggest hurdle facing Future Earth is that many international funding practices don’t support research across different disciplines. Their goal is to find ways to bring together experts focused on initiatives like universal access to water, energy, and food while safeguarding freshwater and marine assets and reducing global carbon emissions. Ultimately, all projects of Future Earth point to a future in which environmental ecosystems regenerate to form a more flourishing Earth.

To help better understand their aims through this cross-disciplinary approach, Future Earth has broken down their overall goals into eight areas that they hope will build on the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set forth by the United Nations.

  • Deliver water, energy, and food for all
  • Decarbonize socioeconomic systems
  • Safeguard terrestrial, freshwater, and marine natural assets
  • Build healthy, resilient, and productive cities
  • Promote sustainable rural futures
  • Improve human health
  • Encourage sustainable consumption and production patterns
  • Increase social resilience to future threats

To influence those beyond the scientific community, Future Earth infuses science and evidence-based thinking into such global policy processes as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Change Conference’s treaty (which serves as a universal agreement to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius). On a hyper-local level, Future Earth’s bioDISCOVERY project has been transforming the way forest species are analyzed. The program shifts forest research to take into account not only temperature and humidity, but also the capacity to disperse and resist drought—factors that inform how forest companies can develop future plantations and ensure species’ survival. Another project, ecoHEALTH, explores the links between global environmental change and health for the planet and society.

Future Earth’s priorities are to raise awareness of its tools within the scientific community and increase overall education regarding the threats of climate change. “Success looks like getting a majority, or everybody, to understand what humans are doing to nature and understand that life in the Anthropocene will be a function of human choices. With that knowledge, we need to be willing to take responsibility to make personal, organizational, and political changes,” Shrivastava says.


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