Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

3 Aug 2021

Sustainability or survivability

Posted by Michael Keating

For more than a generation we have been warned to stop destroying our environment or the damage will come back to haunt us. Experts around the world urged us to quickly move to sustainable forms of development that cut pollution and don’t use up natural resources faster than they are created. We made some half-hearted stabs at the job but keep falling further and further behind.

photo of Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland
Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland

In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development, released Our Common Future, a wide-ranging report that popularized the term sustainable development. Known as the Brundtland Report, it called for development that did not destroy the environment that supports life on Earth. In 1988 the World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere said we needed a 50 per cent cut in global CO2 emissions to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of this greenhouse gas. The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development and the Earth Summit of world leaders produced Agenda 21, a roadmap for more sustainable development and launched the United Nations Framework Convention On Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity, both aimed at reducing ecological damage.

Back then we had the time to for a planned transition to a sustainable economy that would work for all people and for the long term. Instead of launching a full-scale shift to a sustainable economy and lifestyle we built bigger houses, bought bigger cars and consumed and polluted more than ever. Now we coming up against a wall of crises. Whole towns are being burned by out-of-control forest fires and people are dying. Others are fleeing into lakes or seas to save their lives. People thousands of kilometres away from the fires are choking on the smoke and breathing in toxic materials that harm their health. Bigger and hotter heat waves are setting record temperatures, killing people and cooking shellfish alive. Intense heat is even killing Christmas trees as they grow. Droughts are getting longer and more severe, reducing food production, and sending climate refugees from poor lands knocking at the doors of richer nations. Historic floods are wiping out bridges, highways and homes. Glaciers and ice caps are melting, and seas are rising, flooding low-lying areas.

Ruins of Lytton, BC after forest fire Credit: CTVNews

As a senior vice-president of a major polluter ruefully told me years ago it would have been far cheaper to prevent the pollution than to clean up the mess afterward. We now face the task of undoing decades of choices and purchases that are too polluting and demanding of limited resources. In many parts of the world the future is looking so grim that the survivability of communities and whole regions is in question. As the world gets hotter and weather more extreme some regions are predicted to become unlivable. Coastal areas are starting to be inundated and will have to be abandoned or protected with gigantic seawalls. Some food producing areas are already under stress and may not be able to produce as much particularly as rivers dry up. A number of governments have promised a shift to more sustainable forms of development and are investing in renewable energy, but most are still allowing the expansion of fossil fuel projects. This at a time when world experts warn we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by half by the end of this decade and to nearly zero by 2050. Thus we are in a race toward an uncertain future in which our climate will keep changing and we will be struggling both to adapt and to try to reduce our impacts on nature.

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