By Michael Jessen
Your money or your life? It's a question one might encounter in a dark alley on the wrong side of the tracks in a big city. Hardly the kind of dilemma one expects to be played out before one's eyes in the daily media.
Yet at the same time Canadians were being barraged with a crush of advertisements to invest in their financial futures, four new scientific studies painted a bleak picture of what that future might look like. Financial planning isn't worth its weight in RRSPs unless accompanied by better "earth" planning, the scientists essentially said.
"There is reason for concern," Harvard professor James McCarthy intoned solemnly as he commented on the February 19th release of a 1,000-page report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report foresees glaciers and polar icecaps melting, countless species of animals, birds and plant life dying out, farmland turning to desert, fish-supporting coral reefs destroyed, and small island states sunk beneath the sea. The release of the report came just as the world learned that one third of the icefield on Mount Kilimanjaro has disappeared in the past 12 years.
"Most of the earth's people will be on the losing side," said McCarthy, one of the report's authors and co-chair of the panel. The effects of a surge in hurricanes, floods, higher temperatures, and water shortages "are expected to fall disproportionately on the poor because they are less able to adapt," McCarthy added.
Only two days earlier, Paul Harrison told the American Association for the Advancement of Science that half the planet has been systematically cleared, ploughed, grazed, or paved by humans. This "ecological footprint" of Homo sapiens has had an "incalculable" impact on the environment greater than that of all the other species of the planet combined, say the authors of the AAAS's "Atlas of Population and Environment."
Harrison is one of the main authors of the new atlas that shows humankind's impact on the world and how we are stretching the planet's resources to the limit. Humanity is "overreaching itself " and "threatening the key resources on which we depend," Harrison told the annual AAAS meeting in San Francisco.
The same AAAS meeting also heard from Lonnie Thompson, a geologist at Ohio State University, who said all of the ice on Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro will be gone between 2010 and 2020. He said he has also discovered that global warming was affecting the glaciers of the Andes.
"These glaciers are very much like the canaries once used in coal mines," he told delegates. "They are an indicator of massive changes taking place and a response to the changes in climate in the tropics."
In another AAAS session, University of BC fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly said the world's oceans are being depleted by a booming fish farming industry that is literally feeding on world fisheries.
Production of a single pound of fish-eating species such as shrimp, salmon, tuna, or cod demands 2 to 5 pounds of wild caught fish -- like mackerel, sardine, herring, sprat, and anchovy -- to be processed into meal and oil for feeds.
"When you think about it, it's crazy," Pauly said in an interview. "Instead of a renewable resource, you turn it into a mining operation. Through this policy, you render rebuilding impossible."
The prospects on land don't look much better. Much of the world's farmland is in such poor condition that farmers will have to find better ways to grow crops or else their production won't keep pace with the growing population, according to a joint study by the International Food Policy Research Institute and the World Resources Institute.
"The basic story is that agriculture is being pretty successful at keeping the world in food," Stanley Wood, the report's lead author said. "It's been somewhat less successful in nurturing the natural resources that underpin that production capacity." His study says only 16 percent of the world's cropland -- which has grown six-fold since 1700 -- is free of fertility problems such as chemical contamination, acidity, salinity, or poor drainage.
But there is no reason this has to be an "either/or" script -- preserve wilderness or develop it, protect species or endanger them, save the environment or save jobs. Perhaps we just need new tools to increase the velocity of environmental progress. Maybe we need the courage and wisdom to periodically reevaluate our traditional legislative tools and how we apply them. It's obvious the complexity of environmental and economic problems continue to defy simplistic solutions. We need solutions that build community, reduce polarization, foster equality, introduce balance and stewardship, and still protect the environment.
Scientists believe global warming can be conquered, but they say development paths leading to low greenhouse gas emissions "depend on a wide range of policy choices and require major policy changes in areas other than climate change."
According to Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, "The good news is that there are cost effective policies and technologies available for cutting emissions. The bad news is that there are many barriers to rolling these out. We must figure out how to break down these barriers."
It is becoming clear that all sectors of society need to approach our worldly problems with fresh eyes and new attitudes.
So, here's a modest proposal. Why not adopt some of the language and strategies from the pages of the financial planner's brochure? Here are some thoughts to incorporate in an earth plan for our daily lives: "We don't just live for today or ourselves," "it's about setting goals, building a plan, and sticking to the fundamentals in order to reach those goals," "living responsibly isn't something you learn today and forget tomorrow -- it's something that guides you every single day," "know what you own and why you own it," and finally, "be ultimately responsible."
We need to look after the wealth of the planet, just like we look after our own. Retiring comfortably will be an empty phrase in a devastated world.
GREEN STEPS - One person can make a difference -- become that person. Demand is a tool that we ultimately control. Businesses will respond to our demands or they won't remain in business. McDonald's would sell free-range, organic, grass-fed hamburgers if we demanded it. Without our money, they have no life. The U.S.-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (www.peta.org/) has already reported that McDonald's Corporation has imposed new industry standards in slaughterhouses and egg-laying facilities in response to PETA's concerns. "It just shows how when a huge corporation uses its corporate muscle to make changes, that change is made," said Temple Grandin, an assistant professor of animal science and a noted expert on humane slaughter.
RESOURCES - A Summary for Policymakers of the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other IPCC documents can be downloaded from their web site at www.ipcc.ch/. The University of California Press will publish the AAAS's Atlas of Population and Environment in April. Read about the book and order on-line on the association's web site at www.aaas.org/news/atlas2.html. Urban growth can be graphically seen from space on the Goddard Space Flight Center's web site at http://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/imagewall/AAAS/. You can find out more about Daniel Pauly's fisheries research on the SeaWeb organization's site at www.seaweb.org/AAAS/foodchain.html. The Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems: Agroecosystems, a joint study by The International Food Policy Research Institute and the World Resources Institute is available for download from www.ifpri.cgiar.org. The Climate Change Caravan will be bicycling across Canada from May 7 to September 17 to teach Canadians about the impacts of climate change. Their 10 suggestions for reducing personal greenhouse gas emissions can be found at www.mta.ca/climatechangecaravan/renew.htm. The web site www.globalchange.org/ maintains an archive of articles about climate change and ozone depletion.
Michael Jessen is the owner of toenail environmental services, a consulting business that helps companies and communities profit from environmental leadership. He can be reached at 250-229-5632 or by e-mail at email@example.com. His firm's award-winning web site is at www.toenail.org/.
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