Ecology - Good News
Is there room for optimism?
I give a qualified yes.
If you look around you, you can see positive changes. In fact, despite the frenzy of consumption, I think humankind may be at the beginning of a Sustainable Revolution.
Many of the world's people have experienced and benefitted from the Industrial and Agricultural revolutions, but over time we have come to realize that many of the ideas and technologies on which we pinned our hopes for a brighter future don't work, can't work in a world of more than six billion people.
Many world leaders, business leaders, environmentalists, and citizens have come to realize that humankind is on an unsustainable path. That alone is a sign of hope! It seems as if we are awakening to the fact that there are limits. Moreover, responsible business leaders and many world leaders are realizing that we have to find a new path.
The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, commonly called the Earth Summit, was a pivotal point in the Sustainable Revolution. A meeting of nearly 170 nations, it set us on a new path toward a sustainable society.
That said, there's a lot of confusion about what sustainable development is and what it requires of us. Many advocates of sustainable development seem to think that we can grow our way to an enduring human presence.
I don't think we can. We can't continue to grow. We must recognize limits and learn to live within them. Life on a finite planet requires a strategy of moderation where each action is an expression of renewal and protection. The course we're on, fashioned in the philosophy of the cancer cell, spells doom.
Sustainable development is a way of meeting present needs without bankrupting the Earth. It is a way satisfying our needs that ensures future generations the ability that they will have a habitable planet that meets their needs too. It is a way of life that recognizes the sanctity of all life forms, and seeks ways to ensure peaceful coexistence of humans and nature in all its forms.
To build a sustainable society, we must find ways to use all resources efficiently. We must recycle and use recycled materials - far more than we are today. We must switch to renewable resources, such as wind and solar energy. We must restore damage to farms, fields, forests, lakes, rivers, and oceans. And we must control population growth.
These simple, yet profoundly influential changes, which I describe in greater detail in my book, Lessons from Nature: Learning to Live Sustainably on the Earth, can help us make the shift from a resource-hungry, environmental liability to a more benign, temperate creature living within the inexorable limits of a finite planet.
If we're going to make the shift to a sustainable society, we're going to have to rethink and restructure human systems. This is not something you hear many people talk about it, primarily because many people don't recognize that it is the systems that we've devised to meet our needs that are at the heart of the environmental crisis.
Fortunately, there are many changes going on today, changes that could help usher in a new sustainable era. They are changes that we can be proud of.
The ozone treaty is one of the most remarkable success stories of the 20th Century. In a few short years, the nations of the world rallied to protect the ozone layer by phasing out ozone-depleting chemicals. We are not out of the woods yet. CFCs are persistent chemicals lasting 100 years or more, and it will take a long time for the ozone layer to recover - perhaps 50 to 100 years. But we did take action and we should celebrate this success!
Talks are underway to reduce carbon dioxide - and have been for some time. Some progress has been made, but not much. Some of the greatest news comes not from governments, but from companies who've independently decided to slash carbon dioxide emissions. British Petroleum and Dutch Royal Shell have made a commitment to cut carbon dioxide emissions from their operations, as has Polaroid. These and other companies are making dramatic changes, not token efforts. Insurance companies and natural gas companies are also now standing resolutely behind efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Other good news comes from the renewable energy sector. Unbeknownst to many, solar electricity is growing at a rate of 16% per year and is the second fastest growing source of energy in the world! Surprisingly, wind energy is number one.
Although both forms of renewable energy still pale in comparison to coal and oil, we may be seeing the beginning of the renewable energy era. In still other good news, numerous automobile manufacturers now sell or have announced plans to sell hybrid vehicles. Honda's InsightTM was the first to hit the U.S. market, followed closely by Toyota's PriusTM. These vehicles, and others like them, are called hybrid vehicles because they have two engines, a small gasoline engine and an electric engine. The electric engine requires no charging like electric cars. It gets all the electricity it needs from the gas engine. In hybrid cars, the electric engines tend to operate when the car is moving at low speeds in cities. When additional power is required, the small gas engine kicks in. What's so good about them is that they get great gas mileage. The Honda InsightTM, which seats two people, gets nearly 70 miles per gallon. The PriusTM, which seats four, gets over 50 miles per gallon. With improvements in design and the use of lighter, stronger materials, some people believe that hybrid cars could get as much as 150 miles per gallon!
Truly, there are many signs of change. Environmentally friendly building products are becoming widely available. Thanks to innovative and dedicated individuals working in the building industry, there isn't a material that goes into building a home that doesn't have a green substitute. You can even buy nails made from recycled steel! Straw bale and other environmentally friendly natural buildings are being built across the world in great number. These natural homes provide comfort, energy efficiency, and affordable living with little impact on the planet, our planet, lest we forget, the only habitable real estate in our Solar System. Home Depot has announced that within a few years it will only be selling lumber from independently certified sources - that is, forests certified to be sustainably harvested and manufacturing facilities deemed to be environmentally sound. So amid the rush to get ahead and the roar of SUVs there is hope. There is a growing seed nourished by environmental values and an understanding of the importance of the environment to our lives, a realization that planet care is the ultimate form of self care.
I hope the stories of our success and failures creates in you a renewed interest and commitment to the environment and creating a sustainable lifestyle. Let this be the year you undertake all of those projects you've dreamed and talked about. This might be a good year to install some PV panels or a wind generator or catch rainwater to water your lawn. In closing, I leave you with a thought from the late, sometimes great, Edward Abbey who once said that "sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul." I ask you to remember one thing: that your philosophy is not what you believe, it is what you do, how you act, how you live.