Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

27 Oct 2015

Values and sustainability – first in a series

Posted by Michael Keating

What will it take to get to a really sustainable world? I’ve been writing about environment and sustainability for close to 50 years. Often the discussions about how to solve environment problems centre on the technical issues. How can we build a better battery so more people will use electric cars? How many fish or trees can we harvest without running down the natural stocks? How do we deal with pollution in our food, air and water? Barriers to sustainability are more in our heads than in our workshops. The increasing pressures on our natural environment are driven by our demands and how we satisfy them. These demands are governed by our values, and what we think is right and wrong. If we continue trying to fix each environmental problem after it has become serious, we will never catch up. If we really want to stop over polluting and over consuming nature, we need a big shift in our values.

This is the first in a series of articles looking at environment, sustainability and values. In the first one I’ll try to sum up the past half century of environmental issues and how our values have been evolving. In the second article, I’ll lay out some goals and principles for sustainability. In the third, I’ll examine barriers slowing progress toward sustainability. In the fourth, I’ll look at people who are showing leadership in a transition to a more sustainable world.

Then, my colleague, Eric Hellman, co-creator of the famous Blue Box recycling program in Ontario, will continue the series with a story of the power of collective, individual changes to affect a society. He’ll explore ways we may be able to deal with the roots of our ‘unsustainability,’ starting with the values and attitudes that drive our behaviour in the first place. I hope this series will spark a discussion, and look forward to your thoughts and comments.


The road to today’s environment

Let’s turn the clock back half a century. Raw pollution was commonly dumped into pits, waterways and the air. Some rivers ran brown with human waste, or were so oily that the surfaces caught fire. Ducks would land in this pollution and never fly again. There were no environment departments to turn to for help. Most people were unaware of the scope of environmental problems and their impacts, but they saw and smelled enough to make them worry. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring revealed the dangers of widespread pesticide use. Her book gave voice to underlying public concerns about many forms of pollution and helped foster a broad-based environmental movement. It helped trigger a shift in values. People who had dismissed environmental problems as the cost of doing business began to see them as a threat to their health.

As a young reporter in 1966, I wrote my first environment story on the “dying” of Lake Erie. This was a big, international environmental issue. Phosphorus pollution, mainly from laundry detergents, human sewage and fertilizers, was causing huge growths of algae in the Great Lakes, particularly Lake Erie. One scientist later told me that sailing a boat on that lake was like going through pea soup. Public anger about the gross pollution in the lower Great Lakes led to anti-pollution laws controlling phosphates in laundry detergents, and billions of dollars spent on sewage treatment. The Great Lakes got cleaner. (However, in recent years algal blooms have been returning to Lake Erie bigger than ever, blamed largely on phosphorus fertilizers from farms being washed into the lake. It is an important story because it shows how we can bring an environmental problem under control, but see it boil up again because we have failed to deal with all causes, and put a permanent cap on pollution.)

By 1970, I was writing about the threat of mercury, which had just been detected in some fish in parts of the Great Lakes and Northern Ontario. This invisible pollution can cause nerve damage in people who eat contaminated fish, particularly on a regular basis. Unsightly algae were one thing but invisible toxic pollution in your food was quite another. People were fearful, and for a time there was a total ban on commercial fishing in Lake St. Clair. Mercury was just the tip of a toxic iceberg. Scientists found dozens of other hazardous chemicals in fish and wildlife not only in the lakes but throughout the environment. Fish consumption warnings were issued and governments began to ban or strictly control a number of chemicals. Fear of pollution helped push Canada’s federal and provincial governments to create environment departments. In a prescient statement, especially from a business group, the International Chamber of Commerce declared in 1971, “protecting the environment will be one of the greatest challenges for all countries in the closing decades of the twentieth century.”

They were right. The environmental news kept getting worse. By the late 1970s, I had thick files on Great Lakes pollution and a growing one on acid rain. Millions of tonnes a year of sulphur and nitrogen pollution put acids into the air and water, killing life in many lakes, eroding buildings and harming our lungs. The acidic pollution came mainly from coal-burning power plants, some metal smelters and motor vehicles. Within countries there were huge struggles to get governments to crack down on polluters. Between countries there were angry words about transboundary pollution killing other peoples’ lakes. Pressure built, governments finally passed tougher laws and pollution was reduced. In my early days of reporting on acid rain I got a lesson on pollution and values when I told a lawyer friend about this acidic fallout damaging lakes in cottage country north of Toronto. His immediate reaction was that it needed to be stopped because it would diminish the value of his cottage. He was not alone; a great many people were horrified by the idea this pollution could harm the pristine wilderness that was part of our national identity.

The 1980s were a decade of discovery for one environmental problem after another. In Canada, acid rain became the flagship environmental issue, but it was not alone. There was deforestation, overfishing, urban sprawl, big dams, overflowing garbage dumps, the decline of many wildlife species and proposals for North American water diversions. Of course, there were constant stories about chemical threats whether from leaking dumps, threats to drinking water or lead in gasoline. But, two huge issues came to dominate the headlines. The first was the hole in the stratospheric ozone layer, caused by chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons. Damage to the ozone layer was letting more harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun reach the ground. With human health at risk governments from around the world moved quickly to sign the first global atmospheric treaty, ordering the end for ozone-depleting chemicals. The change was relatively easy for companies, who substituted newer usually more expensive chemicals for the old ones. What were the values that drove public opinion and led to government actions? In some cases, it was a feeling that nature should not be despoiled. Most often, it was a fear of threats to our health.

The second big issue was climate change, then called the greenhouse effect because of how some air pollution was trapping the sun’s heat, and warming up the planet. (This led to the second label: global warming.) Whatever we call it, there is no easy fix. Most of the greenhouse gases come from the fossil fuels that power our economies, warm our homes and run our cars. Here the values issue gets more complicated. We want a healthy environment, and worry about the extreme weather that is already coming with a warmer climate, but we also value the use of fossil fuels, and are struggling with the transition to renewable energy.

For a detailed timeline, please see the Environment and Sustainability Chronology.


From environmental disputes to sustainability

The environmental movement developed as a reaction against excessive killing of other species, destruction of nature and the fear that pollution was poisoning us. Our approach to environmental problems was based on public pressure, which in turn led to government legislation, with limits to fishing, hunting, cutting trees and how much pollution could be put into the common environment. There was a historic move in 1980s to move beyond dispute and resolution, react and cure to a more positive approach in which development did not keep causing environmental problems in the first place. In 1980, the World Conservation Strategy, by two international environment organizations, called for sustainable forms of development. But the concept did not take off until the work of the World Commission on Environment and Development.

In 1984, I went to the United Nations headquarters in New York to interview Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway, who had just been appointed to form this commission. I came with the feeling that industrial development was an intractable source of our big environmental problems. The commission’s 1987 report, Our Common Future, changed my perspective. This Brundtland Commission, with its panel of world experts, said development itself was not bad, but the wrong kind of development was damaging the environment and harming people. The report said poor countries needed more development to satisfy the legitimate needs and reasonable wants of people who lacked such basic necessities as clean drinking water and good food. It cautioned that this development needed to fit within nature’s limits. The already industrialized nations needed to reduce their environmental impacts. The Brundtland values, embedded in the title of the report, talked of the rights of future generations, along with the need for equity among different peoples of the world when it came to the use of resources and the right to release some pollution.

How are we doing some 30 years after the Brundtland prescription, and more than five decades into the modern environmental era? Are we becoming a more sustainable world where we integrate economic, social and environmental decisions so one does not get short shrift? And are we doing enough to keep our demands within nature’s limits? In short, we have made progress, but not enough.

Universities created environmental studies faculties, producing more environmentally literate people. Governments created environment departments or offices, along with a wide range of laws and regulations. It’s much harder for businesses to dump raw wastes or destroy whole environments in the search for profit. Some big companies have senior environmental officers, and are cooperating, even leading in pollution reduction, resource conservation and greener products. Some pollutants have been banned or controlled, reducing threats to our health, and allowing some species such as the bald eagle and peregrine falcon to stage comebacks. A lot of lakes and rivers are cleaner, and there are many more parks and protected areas. Some endangered species were reintroduced and others are returning to old habitats thanks to habitat protection. Forestry has become more sustainable in many developed countries. Motor vehicles are much cleaner and more fuel efficient. Recycling programs that did not exist a few decades ago are now widespread.

Despite important progress on some issues, humanity’s ecological footprint keeps growing. We continue to support current lifestyles by unsustainable consumption. We are adding more pollution to the atmosphere than it can handle, leading to build-up of pollutants with increasingly serious effects. We are using up non-renewable resources such as fossil and nuclear fuels, and metals. We are draining some underground water sources faster than they are replenished by rain and snow. In some parts of the world we still harvest trees faster than they can grow.

The pressures on the environment keep increasing. The world’s population was 5 billion when Brundtland challenged humans to reduce their environmental impact. It is now more than 7.2 billion, and is projected to grow to 9.6 billion in 2050 and to as much as 12 billion by 2100. At the same time there is increasing demand for energy and resources from this larger population whether it be for coffee, coal, cars or computers. The International Energy Agency forecast that global energy demand will grow by 37 per cent by 2040. Fossil fuels still account for more than 80 per cent of the world’s commercial energy. Renewable energy is growing but without major changes, it will not displace fossil fuels for many decades.

The Brundtland report focussed global attention on the need for sustainable development. Since then, a series of global conferences laid out guidelines, such as in Agenda 21, and the United Nations has just set new sustainable development goals. There has been more economic development in many poorer countries. A lot more people can afford decent food and shelter, have safe drinking water and sanitation, and have electricity. But the style of much of this development continues to undermine our future environmental security. The challenge is to have development that fulfills human needs and reasonable wants while living within the biosphere’s long-term ability to renew resources we harvest and safely absorb wastes. This requires a transition to sustainable forms of development and lifestyles. How can we improve human well-being while protecting ecological health?

As a reporter, I asked Brundtland commission member Maurice Strong, a world-famous Canadian business leader and environmentalist, if we could make that shift. “It is going to be a race between our sense of survival and our more indulgent drives,” he replied.

Many experts have studied and written books and reports laying out goals and principles that could guide our decisions onto a more sustainable pathway. I’ll describe a number of them in my next piece.

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