World of Difference

December 24, 1999

By Michael Jessen

There's a world of difference between a resolution and a commitment. The former is a decision to do something, while the latter is the act of doing.

When Canada's leading environmentalist David Suzuki called the 1990s the "turnaround decade" for the environment, he said humanity was facing "a crucial moment of choice" to restore the sacred balance of life.

Whether the year 2000 is the last year of the 1990s or the beginning of the new millennium is a mute point. One thing is crystal clear: the world needs more people choosing to act on their New Year's resolutions.

Suzuki and hundreds of other world scientists have issued a warning to us - our global economy is on a collision course with the Earth's ecosystems. The evidence can be found in four areas: climate change, biodiversity, world hunger, and water shortages.

If any single environmental factor is going to disrupt lives and threaten survival in the first half of the 21st century, it will probably be climate change. In 1995 the hundreds of scientists on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded, "the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate." The 10 warmest years in the last 130 all occurred in the past 15 years - and, of these, seven of the warmest years were recorded in the 1990s. Normally temperatures only change by a few hundredths of a degree, but 1998 was the warmest year on record with temperatures up three-tenths of a degree over the previous record.

Scientists believe that emissions of greenhouse gases - carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide produced chiefly through the burning of coal, oil, and gasoline - have changed the composition of the Earth's atmosphere. Although greenhouse gases allow sunlight to pass through to the Earth, they trap heat being carried back off into space and radiate some of it back down here. Thus, the more gases emitted through human activity, the more the planet warms.

The insurance industry is feeling the brunt of climate change. In just five years of the 1990s, insurers found themselves having to pay out over three times more compensation for weather-related damage than they had for the entire decade of the 1980s. In 1998, at least 56 countries suffered severe floods, while 45 baked in droughts that saw normally unburnable tropical forests go up in smoke from Mexico to Malaysia and from the Amazon to Florida.

For Canada to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in keeping with the commitments it made in Kyoto, Japan, two years ago will require "the most profound economic challenge" since World War II according to recent cabinet documents obtained by Southam News. Canadians will have to find ways to improve energy efficiency by between four and five percent annually for the next 10 years if we are to meet our commitments.

Here are some things you can commit to doing: Buy energy-efficient new appliances. (Ten large power plants could be eliminated if every U.S. household had the most energy-efficient refrigerator available.) Turn off lights when not in a room and buy compact fluorescent bulbs to replace your incandescent ones. (Call your local electrical utility for bulb recommendations and to inquire about purchase rebates.) Turn down your thermostat. (A 2-degree reduction will prevent the release of 500 pounds of carbon dioxide over the course of a year.) Drive a fuel-efficient vehicle and avoid short trips. (A vehicle driven 11,000 miles a year emits its own weight in carbon dioxide and a car emits 40 percent more carbon dioxide per mile when it's run on a cold engine.) Walk, ride a bike, or use public transit. Plant at least one tree a year to help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. If you live in an area where you can purchase electricity generated from renewable sources like wind, solar or small hydro, do so. Turn off your oven for the last 5 to 10 minutes of cooking to take advantage of residual heat.

Biological diversity (or biodiversity for short) is a measure of an ecosystem's value to the planet. The more species of plants, animals, and other life-forms in a given region, the more resistant that region is to destruction and the better it can perform its environmental roles of cleansing water, enriching the soil, maintaining stable climates, even generating the oxygen we breathe. Worldwide, it is estimated that more than 4,000 species become extinct each year due to the cutting of tropical rainforest. The World Conservation Monitoring Centre says that since 1600, the destruction of habitat has caused roughly 36 percent of all extinctions; introduced species have caused 39 percent; and hunting has caused 23 percent.

E.O. Wilson, the Harvard University zoologist who helped establish the concept of biodiversity, believes the fate of the world's flora and fauna depends on a combination of science, education, and ethics. "We have to get a much better scientific understanding of where biodiversity is and what's happening to it and its value for humanity," Wilson says in the November-December issue of Audubon magazine. "The world environment is changing so fast that there is a window of opportunity that will close in as little time as the next two or three decades."

Some commitments you can make to help biodiversity include: Plant native shrubs and trees that provide food and shelter for birds and other creatures. Help rid the landscape of some 5,000 nonindigenous plants (like the purple loosestrife) that are ousting native species on some 1.7 million acres of North American wildlife habitat each year. Don't keep exotic pets or buy products made from endangered species. Buy organic produce. Buy shade-grown coffee, which helps preserve rainforests and provide for vital habitat for migratory songbirds. Avoid eating swordfish and other overfished species. Support legislation such as the Endangered Species Act.

Every 3.6 seconds someone in the world dies of hunger; three-quarters of the deaths are children under five. Today 10% of children in developing countries die before the age of five. About 24,000 people die every day from hunger or hunger-related causes. The majority of hunger deaths are caused by chronic malnutrition. Families simply cannot get enough to eat. This in turn is caused by extreme poverty. It is estimated that some 800 million people in the world suffer from hunger and malnutrition, about 100 times as many as those who actually die from it each year.

If that is unacceptable to you, there is one amazingly simple thing you can do if you have a computer and Internet Service Provider (ISP). Make www.thehungersite.com the "home" page when you connect to the Internet. Each time you connect, you'll see a button to click to donate free food - only one donation is allowed per day. Sponsors of the site will donate one quarter of a cup of rice, wheat, maize, or other staple food on your behalf. Recent totals have been over 1 million cups a day or over 200 metric tons of free food weekly. 100% of what sponsors pay goes directly to the United Nations World Food Program. Of course, you can just mark the site as one of your favourites, but if it is the home page, it is impossible to forget especially if you connect daily. You could do it at work if you don't have a computer at home as it only takes a few seconds.

It is interesting to see that not one of the site's current or past sponsors is a Fortune 500 company even though each donation only costs the sponsor 1/2 cent. Maybe companies can adopt this idea for local communities by working with local ISPs to increase donations to food banks and soup kitchens to combat hunger in North America.

Although water covers three-fourths of the Earth's surface, fresh clean drinking water is scarce and getting more so. In fact water is becoming a significant cause of international conflict since more than 1 billion of the Earth's population does not have access to uncontaminated drinking water. The United States and Canada rank one-two as the biggest water users in the world - 5,150.7 and 4,383.6 litres per person per day respectively. For comparison, per person use in Sweden only 849.3 litres daily while per person use in the United Kingdom is 493.2. As the U.S. and Mexico are running dangerously low of water in their aquifers, Canada is being pressured to export water to those countries in need. As author Silver Donald Cameron describes in an article in the November edition of Equinox magazine, Canadians may already have signed away our right to make that choice.

What we can do is stop using the highest-quality water for every task, flushing toilets and washing driveways with drinking water. New homes could be constructed to use filtered "graywater" for such tasks. Industry has unlimited scope to recycle water for reuse as a North German manufacturer of paper products for packaging found when it almost eliminated its water use by completely recycling its base supply. In the meantime, people can install water saving toilets (reduce the 5 gallon flush to 1.6 or fewer simply by putting bricks or bottles of water in your toilet tank). Use water saving showerheads when you shower instead of taking baths. A screw-on one-dollar gadget for a faucet combines the water with air to make a foamy mixture that wets better with about half as much water. If it's time for a new clothes washer, buy a horizontal load washer instead of the vertical and save 40-75 percent on your water use. Only wash full loads of clothes or dishes. Fix all the leaks that are responsible for 10 percent of the water use in North America. Join the xeriscape landscape movement and practice water efficient landscaping. Eat lower on the food chain: to produce just a pound of grain-fed beef steak requires hundreds of gallons of water to irrigate feed crops consumed by the steer. (For each serving of 0.3 kilograms of beef steak, 16 kilograms of livestock feces and urine is produced, much of it ending up in fresh water supplies.) Most important, water districts should understand that households charged for their actual use, rather than a flat rate, typically reduce their water use by a third.

If you need inspiration to give you a kick-start, think of 25-year-old Julia Butterfly Hill whose "home" for just over two years was a platform about halfway up a 1,000-year-old, 60-metre redwood tree in northern California near Stafford. The tree was to be cut down for lumber when Ms. Hill decided on December 10, 1997 she was willing to suffer for her heartfelt conviction that cutting down big, old trees is wrong. She came down when Pacific Lumber Company agreed to save the tree -- which Julia named Luna -- and a one hectare buffer area around the tree.

There is so much that each person can do. And by doing small things, seeing the small successes they generate and feeling the small feelings of accomplishment from doing them, we can begin to gather strength to do even larger things. And doing small things is much better than doing nothing. All it takes is the commitment to make a world of difference. You can start with one small step.

RESOURCES: You can find out more about Julia Butterfly Hill on the web site www.lunatree.org/. You can join the David Suzuki Foundation by going to the web site www.davidsuzuki.org/. The book "Manual 2000 - The Ethical Consumer Guide" by John Elkington and Julia Hailes and published in Canada by Key Porter Books is an indispensable guide to hundreds of actions to enrich your daily life. The book "Natural Capitalism" by Paul Hawken and Amory and Hunter Lovins is the current "bible" to empower industry worldwide to take actions to improve the environment and save money and resources at the same time. The Worldwatch Institute's "State of the World 2000" published by W.W. Norton lays out the case for a rapid transition to an environmentally sustainable economy before we do permanent damage to the natural systems that support our global civilization. During the last century, we figured out how to travel to the moon, make ever more powerful computers, and transplant human genes. But as we start a new century, we have far to go to bring clean water to a billion people, to slow the loss of thousands of species, or to meet our energy needs without destabilizing the atmosphere. If we cannot build an environmentally sustainable global economy, then we have no future that anyone would desire.

Postscript:

Above the little town of Stafford, California, Luna, an ancient redwood tree stands today and now in perpetuity as a symbol of hope and as an example of the power of an individual and of grassroots communities to affect change.

For 738 days, Julia Butterfly Hill engaged in a tree-sit, a continuous vigil in a 1,000 year-old redwood giant, located on the Pacific Lumber Company's property in Humboldt County, California. Julia lived on a six-foot by eight-foot, tarp-covered platform nestled in the branches of Luna, 180 feet above the ground. An intensely dedicated support team provided her with food, water and supplies, helping her survive two extremely fierce Northern California winters. After Julia's descent, the support team even stayed to insure that the platform and supplies were safely taken down to return Luna to her natural glory.

International media and millions of people throughout the world have observed this story unfolding and shown their support. Even the president of the Pacific Lumber Company, John Campbell, has now recognized Julia's belief that Luna has come to hold ecological and historical value of great importance to the world. On December 18, 1999, the Pacific Lumber Company extended permanent protection to Luna and the 200 foot buffer zone necessary for the tree's protection, in the form of a legally binding Preservation Agreement and Deed of Covenant.

The Pacific Lumber Company and representatives for Julia Butterfly Hill took unprecedented steps in reaching this tediously negotiated agreement. The Luna Preservation agreement symbolizes hope that a new era of peace and cooperation has begun and that bridges can be built between the timber industry and environmentalists, between corporations and communities. Luna stands to beautifully symbolize this hope and to represent that which is good and decent about humans in our relationship to each other and our connection to the natural world.


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