As Simple as Summer

August 31, 2001

By Michael Jessen

Summer is unsustainable. Just as sure as September follows August, summer will slip into our memory bank of seasons past.

One thing about summer, however, is that it simply returns. We'll have another season in the sun next year right after spring, although perhaps in a slightly different guise than summers past.

Unsustainable human activities are not as simple as summer; they come to a point of no return. The end of oil, for instance, has been predicted for years. Today, fossil fuels are depleted 100,000 times faster than they form. By 2010, world energy consumption is expected to increase almost 50 percent.

Our current reliance on fossil fuels is patently unsustainable as is the annual carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion that reached 6.3 billion tons in 2000. These emissions have quadrupled in the past half-century during which a total of almost 220 billion tons of carbon have been released into the Earth's atmosphere, contributing greatly to global warming.

Two weeks ago, a United Nations report warned of the end of the world's forests. "Short of a miraculous transformation in the attitude of people and governments, the Earth's remaining closed-canopy forests and their associated biodiversity are destined to disappear in the coming decades," says the study's foreword, written by Klaus Toepfer, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program. (The report -- An Assessment of the Status of the World's Remaining Closed Forests -- can be downloaded from ftp://www.na.unep.net/pub/closedforest/).

The Worldwatch Institute's Vital Signs 2001 -- the tenth volume in the series that presents an integrated picture of Earth's health -- details the increasingly unsustainable burdens we impose on the environment. Despite a world economy that has expanded sevenfold since 1950, from $6 trillion to $43 trillion in 2000 (in 1999 dollars), 1.2 billion people still live in poverty and an estimated 1.1 billion do not have clean, safe water to drink.

In the July/August issue of Resurgence magazine (www.resurgence.org/), author Jeremy Rifkin says that while the gap between the possessed and the dispossessed is wide, the gap between the connected and the disconnected is even wider. While one fifth of the world's population surfs in cyberspace, the rest of humanity is far removed from fibre optic cables, cell phones, and computer screens.

"Although difficult for many of us to comprehend, more than half of the human race has never made a phone call," writes Rifkin in an excerpt from his new book The Age of Access.

Some people say sustainable development has become a cliché since it entered the official language in 1987, but it is not abstract jargon. In another article in Resurgence, broadcaster and writer Jonathan Dimbleby calls it "the most important big idea confronting humankind."

Humanity is consuming the world's resources at a faster rate than they can be renewed, says Dimbleby. "We are stamping over the planet, gradually crushing the life out of it and putting ourselves at risk in the process," he adds. "We must treat the planet as if we are going to live for ever and not as though we have dropped in for a weekend break."

Equally important is for corporations to stop seeing humans solely as consuming units. A current Future Shop advertisement claims the personal electronics chain provides "more of the moments you live for." Such advertising only reinforces a growing isolation between humans and the natural world. Sunsets, family gatherings, waterfalls, mountain vistas, a beer with friends, and a sky full of stars are my choice of precious moments.

It is tempting to surrender to pessimism, says Dimbleby, but that is not a sustainable option either. "We know that the process of self-destruction -- for that is what we mean by unsustainable development -- is not irreversible. We can act, we do act, and we will act."

Two solutions detailed in Vital Signs 2001are the growth of socially and environmentally responsible investing and ethical consumer initiatives, each of which can influence the growing power of private corporations. As Dimbleby says, "commercial success and sustainable development are not in opposition to one another but mutually reinforcing."

Several recent studies that look at a broad sample of companies have shown a positive correlation between good environmental management and higher stock prices. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development has evaluated this work and concluded that it "suggests that companies which rate highly on environmental criteria also provide better-than-average returns to shareholders, and that financial analysts and investors can improve their investment performance by attending to environmental value drivers."

"Today, many companies are taking action to reduce environmental impacts well beyond the requirements of regulations, often cutting operating costs and reducing liabilities in the process," says Leslie Carothers, Vice President for Environment, Health, and Safety at United Technologies Corp.

Body Shop founder Anita Roddick says the protests for sustainable development causes need to be taken directly to the boardrooms of each corporation. Such action has already influenced the corporate behaviour of companies such as McDonald's and Nike. "You've got to direct it at the companies," Roddick added. "The only thing they really fear is consumer revolt."

The goal of everyone, be they corporation or private individual, must be to make the word sustainable unnecessary. Sustainable is the way ALL human activities should be done.

The last word goes to Dimbleby. "Sustainable development is not an option; it is the only option." And that's as sure as summer.

ONE SMALL STEP - Buying products made by companies that degrade the environment and exploit workers endorses those activities. Support companies that have adopted social and environmental principles. Use your stock holdings to influence corporate actions through shareholder initiatives. Become a change agent by initiating discussions about sustainable activities at home and in your workplace. This is where the needed changes will start. Check these web sites for resources -- www.ethicscan.on.ca, www.coopamerica.org, and www.corpwatch.org.

RESOURCES - Vital Signs 2001 is published by W.W. Norton and Company. It is available at Oliver's Books in Nelson or through the Worldwatch Institute web site at www.worldwatch.org. The Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism, Where All Life is a Paid-for Experience is available in trade paperback published by Tarcher/Putnam.


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