Our task is to consider and plan for a sustainable management of all land and sea so that they carry as much as possible of the world's genetic and ecological riches through the pressures of the next century...

Acceptance speech – Michael Succow


Madam Speaker, dear Jakob von Uexkull, honourable guests, ladies and gentlemen,

Born a farmers son in Eastern Germany, I belong to the last generation that could experience real farming. As a boy I had to herd the sheep, continuously occupying myself with nature, always looking at birds. I had time for observation. Love and respect for nature became conditioning for the rest of my life, the background of all my further activities.

I want to give you a picture of my fears and my hopes on the eve of the 21st century. What is moving me, what is important? What should be done? What could I do?

Some facts:

  • In the next century, mean global temperature is expected to rise by 3° C, an order of magnitude similar to the transition of the former glacial to our present interglacial period. We can only guess what the consequences will be for vegetation, landscape hydrology and land use.
  • Every year the number of people on this Earth is increasing by 100 million. Within 50 years the human population will have doubled. Only then, a stabilisation and decrease of population pressure can be anticipated.
  • With the present rate of ecosystem destruction, we will lose something like 1.5 million species in the next 25 years. The current extinction rate is 1000 times higher than in the past 65 million years.
  • Ecological disasters are continuously ravaging the world. At this moment, in Southeast Asia fires are destroying 1 million ha of peat land ecosystems with resulting carbon emissions that cannot be compensated by all peat accumulation in the world in the next ten years.

At the start of human history, the Earth contained abundant nature and “poor” people. Humankind started to subdue nature, a process that has almost been completed. Humankind became “rich”, nature became poor.

And now the question forces itself on us: Can that be: rich man – poor nature? Haven’t we reached the point where we must say: poor nature – poor humankind? Or even: the end of humankind?

With these things in mind, let me express my feelings and views:

  • I consider securing biosphere functionality, for which biodiversity is a precondition, to be one of the most important challenges for society.
  • I think, that only those developments can be considered to be “progress”, that are supported by nature.
  • I find, that the economic growth models of the rich countries are the last things this world needs. The loss of the future may no longer be falsely presented as an “increase in prosperity”. Everything that contributes to a slowing-down of such “development” is useful, because, as Konrad Lorenz said, a limited system that grows unlimited will end in a disaster.
  • I urge not to delay the necessary ecological reconstruction of our society any longer. We don’t have much time left, and the longer we repress, ignore and deny, the more we will suffer under our neglect. Our room for manoeuvre diminishes continuously.
  • I am convinced that it is already too late for mere corrections. We need the courage to retreat.

So, what do we have to do?

First of all, we have to restructure our economies: we must learn from the circles of life, from the natural world, “the only system, that can prove a guarantee for survival”, as Frederik Vester wrote. It may be wise to follow the example of a firm, that did not go bankrupt for such a long a time.

Secondly, we have to conserve all remaining wildernesses of the world unconditionally. These areas, presently occupying less than 20% of our continents, are the last refuges of untouched nature and the last living spaces for indigenous peoples. These natural landscapes are, without us, of utmost importance for us. National Parks and UNESCO World Heritage Sites are the recipes for their conservation.

Thirdly, we have to manage nature, in which we economically participate, in such a way that her carrying-capacity is not exceeded. Here we must learn from peoples in the least-favoured areas of the world. They could not overexploit their environment without risking their survival. In the favoured areas of this Earth, civilisation kept expanding in ever new effects, dancing at the edge of the volcano.

Actually, we should be introducing sustainable and environmentally friendly land use strategies everywhere by now. But apparently, this highly developed civilisation is not (yet) ripe for that. Therefore, for the time being, we can only establish examples of how to deal sensibly with the foundations of our life. These examples are the Biosphere Reserves: regions with ecological land use, as models for a sustainable relation with nature to be practised everywhere.

Not only in the western world, but even more in the countries of the “Third World”, we must protect landscape areas against the attacks of our destructive civilisation, in alliance with the indigenous peoples who use them. Indigenous peoples and nature are often affected by the same causes. An actual example is the planned building of the Ralco dam in the Bío-Bío river in Chile, financed by the Swedish International Development Agency and the German Dresdner Bank, that will destroy both the last primeval Araucaria forests and the culture of the Pehuenche indians.

Together we must shield the traditional types of land use, that respect the carrying-capacity of the natural world. Here again, World Heritage Sites and Biosphere Reserves are a proper way to ensure a joint future for humankind and nature.

What could I do until now?

At the start of my scientific career, I became fascinated by mires: by the vegetation, origin and development, ecology, use, destruction and conservation of these sustainably developing natural ecosystems. At present my scientific work concentrates on restoration, alternative land use concepts and global conservation of mires.

As a student and a scientist, I could participate in many activities dealing with land use and nature conservation: in the extension of nature reserves, the creation and management of conservation organisations, and in public relations for nature conservation. Supported by the ecology movement, I became Deputy-Minister of Environment of the German Democratic Republic in January 1990.

Together with my friends and fellow conservationists, especially Lebrecht Jeschke, Mathias Freude and Hans-Dieter Knapp, and supported by the East-German people, we succeeded in initiating the GDR National Park Programme. This programme passed in the last session of the Council of Ministers before the free elections. 5 % of the GDR could finally be included in the Union Treaty. These 5 national parks, 6 biosphere reserves and 3 natural parks became what the former German Minister of the Environment Klaus Töpfer called the “table silver of the German unity”.

The following 7 years were even more exciting. We actively participated in the defense and enlargement of the German conservation system with the addition of many new national and natural parks and biosphere reserves, we stimulated ecological land use, advised national and federal governments and built up the largest nature conservation NGO (NABU) of eastern Germany.

We also got intensively involved in the initiation of conservation programmes outside Germany, especially in countries of the former Soviet Union. In the period 1990 – 1992, the national park programmes of Georgia (20 % of the country) and Mongolia (30% of the country) were prepared for WWF, both programmes presently being (co-)financed by Federal German developmental aid.

Since 1993 we initiated, together with Stephan Dömpke, the development of a biosphere region in the Central Tienshan, Kyrgistan, covering 1/4 of the country, a programme also supported by German aid, and we stimulated the build-up of a local NGO. Since 1996 we have been working on a programme for 16 biosphere regions in Kazachstan, covering all landscape zones (financed by Swiss and Dutch foundations), and on a mire and flood plain conservation strategy for Belarus (financed by the German Michael-Otto-Stiftung). Starting this year we are trying to help the first Chinese NGO “Friends of Nature” with financial aid from the German S.O.F. (Save Our Future) foundation.

A major recent project is the establishment and organisation of World Heritage Sites for the Russian Federation, in which we became involved in 1995. In this framework, we worked in Kamchatka in 1995, resulting in the inclusion of 4.2 million ha in the UNESCO World Heritage List already in 1996, in the Finnish-Russian border region in 1996, the nomination of a system of World Heritage Sites currently being under submission, and in the White Sea region (Archangelsk, Solovetski, Onega) and Jakutsch (Lena delta and river) this year.

In 1992, I was appointed professor and director of the Botanical Institute and Botanical Gardens of Greifswald University, the university where I got my scientific training. The necessity of an integrated approach led us to the development of a special study programme in Landscape Ecology and Nature Conservation, envisioning compromises between sustainable exploitation and conservation of natural biodiversity.

Next to the classical disciplines of landscape ecology and conservation biology, three new Professorial Chairs were recently integrated in the programme: one in Land Use Economy (1996), one in Environmental Ethics (1997), and one in International Nature Conservation (1998). For 1998 we plan to restructure this programme into an international course, in order to enable students from East and West to study together, to stimulate exchange with similar programmes around the world, and to develop in this way international networks of ecologists and conservationists that are prepared for the century to come.

In this spirit, I will use the benefits from the Right Livelihood Award to stimulate projects for the conservation of peoples and nature in the developing countries, especially in Northern Eurasia.

Northern Eurasia with its giant natural rivers, with the largest natural forest area of the northern hemisphere: the Siberian taiga, with the world’s last intact steppe in Mongolia, its deserts and semi-deserts, the world’s deepest lake Baikal, the high mountains of Kaukasus, Pamir, Tienshan and Altai with their exuberant flora and fauna, the world’s largest mires in the West-Siberian lowlands, the impressive volcano landscapes of Kamchatka and the endless, endless arctic tundra…

On the eve of the 21st century, humankind is facing the largest challenges of its existence. As Martin Holdgate said: “National Parks and Protected Areas are a vital front line in the campaign to save the world’s biodiversity for study and use. We are right to treat such areas as the jewels in our particular crown. But jewels in a crown are held up by the metal that links them.

Our task is to consider and plan for a sustainable management of all land and sea so that they carry as much as possible of the world’s genetic and ecological riches through the pressures of the next century into what we must all hope will be a stable and sustainable world beyond.”

Thank you!

Michael Succow Foundation for the Protection of Nature
Ellernholzstr. 1/3
17489 Greifswald