Anyone who’s forgotten to change the water in a goldfish bowl only to find the fish floating belly-up knows that what you can’t see can hurt you. Water looks pretty much the same whether it contains oxygen or not, and the distress signals of fish can be subtle.
Humans also have distress signals. Although they’re more blatant – violence, suicide, alcoholism, poverty, malnutrition – the connection between the deteriorating state of our fish bowl, Mother Earth, and our collective mental and physical health has been ignored for far too long.
Environmental destruction and poverty march hand-in-hand. Environmental damage undermines people’s ability to support themselves and actually pushes them into poverty.
In the name of macroeconomic reform, for example, mangroves are transformed into shrimp farms, mineral extraction is increased, and forests are converted into foreign exchange.
Along the coasts of India, Thailand, Bangladesh, Ecuador and Honduras, intensive shrimp farming for export has replaced much subsistence agriculture. This not only destroys ecologically sensitive wetlands and agricultural land for future use, but it actually creates poverty. Resources essential for the livelihoods of local people are put into the hands of a few landowners and shrimp marketers. In Bangladesh, for example, for every job created in aquaculture, at least 10 jobs are lost in agriculture. While shrimp farms remain productive for only a few short years, it takes more than 30 years to rehabilitate land salinated by these farms.
Poverty can’t possibly be eliminated without addressing environmental issues. We need the Earth’s resources to live, but they’re finite and must be used with care. The term that best captures this idea is “sustainable development.” This means maintaining a rate of development in which the resource, whether it’s farmland, trees, fish, or air can renew itself.
In other words, we may harvest the milk, but we mustn’t kill the cow.
…To make it possible for every person in the world to enjoy the lifestyle of a typical, middle-class Vancouverite, we’d need two, even three, planets!
Unfortunately, whether by conscious choice, apathy, ignorance, or force, we are allowing ourselves to die slowly of neglect.
- 17 of the world’s major fisheries have reached or exceeded sustainable limits, and 9 are in serious decline.
- Nearly 15,000 fish harvesters on the Atlantic Coast of Canada have lost all or part of their livelihoods due to industrialization. The economies of 175 fishing communities have been heavily damaged, and another 200 have been seriously affected.
- Canada has increased greenhouse gases, a major cause of climate change, by at least 13% over 1990 levels, despite its commitment at Rio in 1992 to stabilize emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000.
- Approximately 100 plant and animal species disappear each day; every week the Earth loses more species than were lost in the last three centuries combined.
And in the name of free trade and the economic shakeup that follows, governments are being stripped of the power to manage the effects of the global economy. They’re forced to choose between opening their communities or losing access to investment capital. Southern governments sacrifice communal forests and vast tracts of farmland for a short-lived foreign exchange surplus and, occasionally, a cut of the profits. Poverty can sometimes compel these countries to accelerate the destruction of their environment.
Peasants become dispossessed. Approximately one sixth of the inhabitants of Burkina Faso and Mali have been uprooted because of the drastic reduction in soil fertility. Worldwide, 135 million people risk losing their land to creeping deserts.
None of this is inevitable. We have the ways and the means to reverse our current suicidal course.
Restoring local control over resources is a good place to begin. When the community that’s traditionally depended on those resources controls them, it has a material incentive to conserve them. Grassroots co-operatives, micro-enterprises and small-scale credit schemes are helping to jump-start sustainable forestry operations, seed conservation programs and environmental rehabilitation projects.
Governments must also assume responsibility. Southern governments need to invest in sanitation and education. In partnership with their citizens and businesses, governments everywhere could explore and implement new methods of production and sustainable limits to the ownership and consumption of goods. Supporting alternative trading organizations, such as Bridgehead in Canada, and purchasing products with eco-labels are practical alternatives.
Northern governments should refuse to finance the export of obsolete and environmentally-destructive technologies to poor countries. And private sector corporations can serve everyone’s interests by developing and transferring clean technologies to the South.
Both North and South could invest in people in ways that enhance relationships, and that bring individual actions in line with collective goals. This is the human face of sustainable development, and is a way of building a country’s “social capital”.
There’s also a role for international law. The Basel Convention on the Control of Trans-boundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal should be amended to make hazardous exports illegal. If Northerners were prohibited from off-loading environmental damage to the South, they’d be forced to grapple with the environmental effects of over-consumption. Perhaps then they’d appreciate that to make it possible for every person in the world to enjoy the lifestyle of a typical, middle-class Vancouverite, we’d need two, even three, planets!
Non-governmental organizations are playing a vital role internationally in promoting sustainable development, raising public awareness, and advocating corporate responsibility and progressive changes to international treaties.
- Internationally, the Forest Stewardship Council is promoting environmentally-responsible, socially-beneficial, and economically-viable management of the world’s forests. It’s working to establish a trademark and certification system for forestry companies.
- As the nations of the world gathered in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997, Canadian environmental organizations, among them, the Sierra Club of Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation, the Pembina Institute and the Climate Action Network, had longstanding campaigns to press Canada and other countries to take leadership on policies that will limit greenhouse gas emissions. Insurance companies have become allies. Projections of huge losses resulting from climate change have prompted them to press for an international treaty to limit these emissions.
- The Rural Advancement Foundation International is lobbying for international legal recognition of farmers’ rights and an intellectual property regime that offers fair compensation for the commercial exploitation of indigenous knowledge.
Higher taxes on resource use, and taking account of long-term depletion and pollution, would discourage resource-intensive manufacturing and agriculture. With suitable allowances for transition, such taxes would encourage more labour-intensive and ecologically-sound methods of production, including the use of renewable energy resources, the valuing of crop diversity, and indigenous peoples’ knowledge of organic farming methods.
Finally, the economy could be put at the service of people by replacing the concept of the Gross National Product (GNP) with the Genuine Progress Indicator. Gross National Product as a measure of a country’s productivity gives the same value to a dollar spent on arms production as a dollar spent on health care.
The Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), on the other hand, would assess how the economy actually affects people. It would subtract from income the negative effects of growth, the costs of pollution, commuting, war, auto accidents, crime, depleting non-renewable resources, and long-term environmental damage.
It would also calculate the positive economic contributions made by the family, community, and natural habitat. As former World Bank economist Herman Daly put it: “Correcting this bias is the logical first step towards a policy of sustainable development.”
Such an indicator of life in the fish bowl would make visible what we don’t see now. More important, it would give us a better shot at caring for ourselves, our planet, and our future.