Declaring that the "the environment is not a luxury, not a Gucci accessory bag or a fancy silk tie affordable only when all other issues have been resolved," the head of the United Nations ecological agency today called on this week's World Summit to give the environment its due priority as the key to human development.

“It is our sincere hope that when heads of state meet in New York that they put ‘natural or nature's capital’ right up there with human and financial capital,” UN Environment Programme (UNEP) executive director Klaus Toepfer said in a statement about the largest ever gathering of world leaders starting at UN Headquarters on Wednesday.

“Anything less will undermine our attempts to defeat poverty and deliver sustainable development and will short-change current and future generations,” he added, stressing that significant, targeted investments in the environment will go a long way towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that seek to slash a host of socio-economic ills, such as extreme poverty, hunger, and preventable diseases, by 2015.

The environment “is the oxygen breathing life into all the Goals,” he said. “It is the red ribbon running around our common aspirations for a healthier, more stable and just world. It is also critical to the economies of countries and regions, a fact that governments have yet to fully take on board but which they ignore at their economic peril.”

Mr. Toepfer cited a long list of supporting evidence, putting actual dollars and cents value to the gains earned from properly managing nature and the losses entailed by its degradation. In one example, New York City Council, faced with supplying safer drinking water for its 9 million customers, saved between $3 billion to $5 billion by investing $1 billion to better manage river banks, forests, agriculture and other ecosystems to reduce pollution into the Catskill/Delaware river system, instead of sinking up to $6 billion into filtration machinery.