Monday, June 18, 2012

New Tone, New Facts in Environmental Movement

By Stephen Bede Sharper, Toronto Star, June 17, 2012
Stephen Bede Scharper teaches at the Centre for Environment, University of Toronto, and is author of the forthcoming book, For Earth’s Sake: Toward a Compassionate Ecology (Novalis).

David Suzuki, the dean of Canadian environmentalism, was joined last Thursday by U.S. journalist Richard Louv, author of the bestselling book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, for a public conversation at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

As these two environmental pioneers parleyed, it became clear that an environmental agenda centering chiefly on conservation, government policy and an urgent, doom-laden, sword-of-Damocles advocacy was quietly morphing into one focused on relationships, children, education, wonder, joy and the healing power of nature....
“When we started the Suzuki Foundation in 1990,” Suzuki recalled, “we thought we had only 10 years.” Influenced by data provided by the Worldwatch Institute, which publishes a much-cited annual State of the World report, Suzuki rebuffed suggestions that the foundation focus on schools, deeming there was “no time” given the grave and imminent threats to our ecosystems.

He now calls his decision quite candidly a “fundamental error.”
Louv echoed Suzuki’s sentiment, recounting a recent meeting with a group of U.S. university students, all focusing on environmental studies, but none connecting with any mainline environmental organizations. One factor was age — the average member’s age of the Nature Conservancy is 68 — but a second reason was articulated poignantly by one of the students. “I’m 20 years old. All my life I have heard we’re finished. The planet is doomed.” Such eco-nihilism is rarely an effective recruitment tool.
Happily, Louv’s work is decidedly non-apocalyptic. Last Child in the Woods helped inspire a growing movement reconnecting children with nature.
Harvesting clinical research showing that children suffering from attention-deficit disorder, depression and suicidal tendencies are often greatly helped by exposure to nature, Louv co-founded the Children & Nature Network, whose vision is to foster “a world in which all children play, learn and grow with nature in their everyday lives.”
In 2010, Louv was invited to address 5,000 pediatricians at the American Academy of Pediatrics annual meeting. They not only warmly received his words, but in some cases have begun to give “nature prescriptions” to children, recommending taking in nature rather than just taking pills to get well. In Portland, Ore., Louv reports, an urban park has become a veritable wellness centre for children, with park staff seeing themselves as “para-health professionals.” Adopting a “climb two maples and call me in the morning” approach, park staff sign off on doctors’ health prescriptions after children have taken their recommended dose of nature.
His most recent book, The Nature Principle, is a cogent plea for a newly imagined future — one that eschews obsession with ecological armageddon and instead focuses on the restorative powers of the planet.
Citing Martin Luther King, Louv states, “Any cultural movement will fail if it can’t paint a picture of a world where people want to go to.” Louv is gravely concerned about the rash of popular, post-apocalyptic cultural images of the future. If, when we think of the future, we only envision some “Blade Runner-Mad Max-Hunger Games scenario,” Louv comments, “we are in real trouble.” Such a post-apocalyptic framing of the future, he fears, is almost as great a threat as climate change.
And then there is this, from Fareed Zakaria's Interview with  Bjorn Lomborg on June 17, 2012
ZAKARIA: This week, hundreds of world leaders and tens of thousands of environmentalists will convene in Rio de Janeiro for the U.N.'s Conference on Sustainable Development. My next guest says that summit will be a wasted opportunity. The U.N. is focused on the wrong target. For every person who might die from global warming, he says, 210 will die from health problems caused by a lack of clean water and pollution. Bjorn Lomborg is the author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist" and other books and he joins me now to explain all this. So, you have a "Foreign Affairs" article coming out, in which you point out what the past history of these kinds of predictions and, you know, environmental concerns have been. Explain that point briefly.

BJORN LOMBORG, AUTHOR "THE SKEPTICAL ENVIRONMENTALIST": Well, fundamentally, it's the 40th anniversary of the limits to growth. The idea that we were going to run out of everything. And even if we weren't, we were going to be screwed anyway because we would basically be polluting ourselves to death.
ZAKARIA: This was the report that came out from Stockholm, and it was the Club of Rome report.
LOMBORG: Yeah, it was actually, it came out from Rome. And it was "The Limits to Growth" report.
ZAKARIA: Right.
LOMBORG: That ran computer models, back then -- of course, remember, computers seemed like they were telling the truth no matter what you put into them. And I think with the -- with the oil embargo in '73, just one year later and oil prices shooting up, there was a real sense that, yes, we are running out of everything.
ZAKARIA: Yes.
LOMBORG: You know, we are running out of oil. And we need to conserve everything. And we are really on a very, very wrong path. In many ways, you can say, it's set the environmental agenda certainly for a couple of decades.
ZAKARIA: And then, so what are the facts?
LOMBORG: Well, the problem is they were wrong. They were first of all wrong that we were going to run out of food. But perhaps more importantly for the environmental concern, they were wrong about the idea that we were going to run out of all resources. Actually, if you look at the cost of resources, which is the economist's way of looking at how many resources do we have left, the cost of resources generally have come down about sevenfold since 1850. And yes, it's ticked up in the last ten years. But still, just from about twice as much, but if you look at the whole curve, it's very clear, it's a clear downward trend.
Why? Because innovation is much, much more important than using up the resources. The Club of Rome thought was there's only this much resources. When we've used up that, we are really up a creek. But of course what they forgot was we find many more resources and we get much better at exploiting poor resources further away, but even cheaper with technology. And that's really what we've done with virtually all resources.
ZAKARIA: What about the other half of that report, which was about pollution?
LOMBORG: Yes. They also assumed -- and again, it makes sense. In a cultural setting, obviously industry is you put out -- you have belching smokestacks. And they thought as we get richer and richer and there are more and more people, you'll have more and more belching smokestacks. But of course, what they forgot, was technology actually handles a lot of that. Now, we've actually seen air pollution come down in much -- most rich countries for most of the last century. So, it's not just the technology after the Club of Rome report. But of course, after '72, we put extra effort into making regulations that meant that we've gotten even lower levels of air pollution.
ZAKARIA: But this -- and so you support those government regulations?
LOMBORG: Absolutely. We want to have regulation where it makes sense. Where it -- where there's lots of people dying, for instance, from air pollution. That is a real concern. But you should also recognize what is it that drives the ability to care about the environment? It is that you're rich enough that you don't have to worry about your kids dying tomorrow. And that's my real concern about the way we look into the future when we go down to Rio in just a few days, what are we talking about there? Well, we're talking about going to a green economy, and we're talking about global warming. But in reality, the real issues of most of this world is still air and water pollution. Why are we not talking about the important issues in the third world? Why are we talking about -- if you will, somewhat more esoteric issues that clearly care -- concerns first world people? There is perhaps a 0.06 percent of all deaths in the developing world caused by global warming. There's 13 percent of all deaths caused by air and water pollution. Let's get our priorities right.
I'm just blown away by the way that virtually everything we talk about, if you read the U.N., their little leaflet that they distribute for the Rio summit, they show how we should all get electric cars and we should go organic and stuff like that. No. Most people in developing world cannot afford an electric car. But what we should do is focus on innovation to make those cars so cheap. Then the next half century, everyone will want them.
ZAKARIA: And how can we focus on air and water pollution in the third world? How do we deal with bringing that number down from 13 percent?
LOMBORG: Well, there are two main solutions. One is that we have a lot of technologies that we know how to get clean drinking water. We also know how to get much of the air pollution, most of the air pollution deaths are actually caused by indoor air pollution. People cooking with bad fuels like dung or cardboard. Let's make sure they actually get access to fossil fuels. That makes a lot of people uncomfortable, but of course that's the reality that we live with. And that's why 2 million people don't have to die in the developing world each year because of unsafe cooking and -- and heating fuels. But the long-term solution for that, of course, is to make sure that people actually get richer in the third world. It's a poverty problem. And so I'm a little concerned about the fact that we talk a lot about the Kyoto Protocol. But there's another city with a protocol that we don't talk very much about, the Doha Round. The idea of free trade. That is one that most economists would estimate would give much, much better opportunities in the long run for most countries in the world to actually get rid of their old problems, both environmental, but also all the other poverty-related problems, and then start focusing on environmental problems.
There is perhaps a 0.06 percent of all deaths in the developing world caused by global warming. There's 13 percent of all deaths caused by air and water pollution. Let's get our priorities right.
This quote from Lomborg, is both rivetting and compelling. It defines an issue in much more specific terms, and focuses the minds of public-minded environmentalists, politicians and those with both motivation and leverage on solutions, and not on impossiblities.
With both the Suzuki-Louv conversation, and the Zakaria-Lomborg conversation, we see a far different tone based on far different facts, than both the tone and the facts at the time of the Limits to Growth report from Rome.
We hear frequently, about changes in diet required by new research that points either to the positive contributions of once considered harmful foods, or the dangers of what were once considered healthy foods.
We also hear about the misguided applications of research, in over-medicating, for example, based on too much intensive input from the pharmaceutical industry through doctor "in-house" trainings, that morph over time into public admissions of misused and out-dated information.
The environmental movement is not without both its strongest advocates and its need to set an new agenda in both content and in process.
And a kinder, more gentler, more factually based approach could conceivably garner more adherents, and more acolytes and more research, not to mention more public conversation, discussion and learning at all ages and levels.
It is time, we humbly submit, to begin to consider similar re-evaluations on many fronts, especially those in which combatants are poised with weapons, both physical and verbal, to paint their opponents into "defeat" as is the modus operandi of the Tea Party movement, as expressed by the recent winner, over Senator Lugar, in a primary for the Republican Senate seat, "There must be a winner and a loser in this war!"
It is precisely that kind of politician who is leading us to the brink, of his own limited intellectual and moral and cultural brain, and to the spectre of too many "brinks" of too many cliffs.

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