Archive for category Environment
Sustainability: an attempt at defining it
There is a conflict these days among the different ways people understand sustainability. The definition of the 1987 Brundland Report of the UNO is classic: Sustainable development is one that attends the needs of present generations without endangering the capacity of future generations to attend to their needs and aspirations. This concept is correct, but it has two limitations: it is anthropocentric (it only considers human beings) and it says nothing about the community of life (other living beings that also need a biosphere and sustainability.) I will try to make a formulation that is as inclusive as possible:
Sustainability is every action destined to maintain the energy, information, and physical-chemical conditions that make all beings sustainable, especially the living Earth, the community of life and human life, seeking their continuity, and also to attend the needs of present and future generations in such a way that the natural capital is maintained and its capacity of regeneration, reproduction and eco-evolution is enriched.
Let’s rapidly explain the terms of this holistic vision:
To make sustainable all the conditions necessary for the creation of all beings: they exist starting with the combination of energies, of the physical-chemical and informative elements that, combined together, give origin to everything.
To make sustainable all beings: this is about completely overcoming anthropocentrism. All beings emerge from the process of evolution and enjoy an intrinsic value, independent of human use.
To especially make the living Earth sustainable: the Earth is much more than a «thing» (res extensa), lacking intelligence, or a mere means of production. She does not contain life; she is alive, she self-regulates, self-regenerates and evolves. If we do not guarantee the sustainability of the living Earth, called Gaia, we take away the basis of all other forms of sustainability.
To also make the community of life sustainable: the environment does not exist as something secondary and peripheral. We do not just exist: we coexist, and are all interdependent. All living beings are carriers of the same basic genetic alphabet. We form the net of life, microorganisms included. This net creates the biomass and the biodiversity that is necessary for the subsistence of our life on this planet.
To make human life sustainable: we are a singular link of the net of life, the most complex being in our solar system and a spearhead of the process of evolution as we know it, because we are carriers of consciousness, sensibility and intelligence. We feel that we are called upon to care for and to guard Mother Earth, to guarantee the continuity of civilization and also to be vigilant of our destructive capacity.
To make the continuity of the process of evolution sustainable: all beings are conserved and supported by the Basic Energy or the Source that Creates all Beings. The universe possesses an end in itself, by the simple fact of existing, of continuing to expand and create itself.
To make tending to human needs sustainable: through the rational and caring use of the goods and services which the cosmos and the Earth offer us, and without which we would cease to exist. To make sustainable our generation and the generations that will follow ours: the Earth is sufficient for each generation so long as a relation of synergy and cooperation with the Earth is established, and goods and services are distributed equitably. The use of those goods must be guided by generational solidarity. Future generations have the right to inherit a well preserved Earth and nature.
Sustainability is measured by the capacity to conserve natural capital, that it may renew itself and, perhaps through human genius, that it may be enriched for future generations. This widened and integrating concept of sustainability must serve as criteria for evaluating whether or not we have progressed along the path of sustainability, and should serve equally as inspiration or idea-generating for making sustainability a reality in the different fields of human activity. Without it, sustainability is pure rhetoric, without consequences.
Teaching how to celebrate Life and the Earth
Given the generalized crisis we are presently enduring, all forms of education must include caring for everything that exists and lives. Without caring, we cannot guarantee a sustainability that will allow the planet to maintain its vitality, its ecosystems, its equilibrium, and the future of our civilization. We are taught critical and creative thinking, to have a profession and a good standard of living, but we forget to teach responsibility, and caring for the common future of Earth and Humanity. Education that does not include caring reveals alienation and irresponsibility. The more serious analysts of the ecological status of the Earth warn us that, if we do not care, we may experience catastrophies worse than those experienced in 2011 in Brazil and Japan. To maintain herself, the Earth might be forced, perhaps, to reduce her biosphere, eliminating species and millions of human beings.
Among the many good qualities of the concept of caring, I would like to point out two that are of interest to the new model of education: inclusion of the globe in our everyday imagery, and enchantment with the mystery of existence. When we contemplate planet Earth from outer space, a feeling of reverence arises, at seeing our only Common Home. We are inseparable from the Earth, with her, we form a whole. We feel that we must love her and take good care of her so that she may offer us all we need to continue living.
The second quality of caring as an ethical attitude and a form of love, is the enchantment that we feel for the most spectacular and beautiful apparition that has ever existed, namely, the miracle of the existence of each individual human person. The systems, institutions, sciences, technical achievements and schools lack that which every human possesses: consciousness, the capacity for loving, caring, creativity, solidarity, compassion and the feeling of belonging to a larger Whole that sustains and animates us: the realities that constitute our Profundity.
We surely are not the center of the universe. But we are the beings that carry its conscience and intelligence, through which the universe thinks of itself, is conscious and sees itself in its splendid complexity and beauty. We are the part of the universe and the Earth that has come to feel, to think, to love and to venerate. That is our dignity, that must be internalized and imbued in every person of the new planetary era.
We should be proud of being able to perform this mission for the Earth and for the whole universe. We only fulfill this mission if we care for ourselves, for others, and for every being that inhabits the Earth.
Perhaps few have expressed these noble feelings better than the distinguished musician and poet Pablo Casals, (1876–1973.) In a speech at the United Nations in the 1980s, he
addressed the General Assembly, thinking of the children as the future of the new humanity. His message is also valuable for us adults. Casals said:
The child must know that he himself is a miracle, that from the beginning of the world, never has there been another child just the same, and that in the whole future, there will never be another child like him. Every child is unique, from the beginning to the end of time. That way the child assumes a responsibility, as he confesses: it is true that I am a miracle. I am a miracle as the tree is a miracle. And being a miracle, could I do evil? No, because I am a miracle. I can say God or Nature, or God-nature. That’s not that important. What is important is that I am a miracle made by God and by nature. Could I kill someone? No. I cannot. And could another human being, who is also a miracle, kill me? I believe that what I am telling the children, could help bring about another way of thinking of the world and of life. The world of today is bad, yes it is a bad world. The world is bad because we do not talk to the children as I am talking to them now, in the way they need us to talk to them. Then the world will have no reason to be a bad world.
Great realism is revealed here: every reality, especially human reality, is unique and precious, but at the same time, we live in a conflicted world, contradictory and with terrifying aspects. In spite of all that, we must trust in the strength of the seed. The seed is filled with life. Every child that is born is a seed of a world that can be better. Because of that, it is worth having hope. A patient in a psychiatric hospital that I visited, printed with fire on a small board that he later gave me: «Every child who is born is a sign that God still believes in the human being.» It is not necessary to say anything more, because in these words lies the meaning of our hope as we face the evils and tragedies of this world.
Ruled by the Blind and Irresponsible
Looking carefully at the many analyses of the crises that are destroying us, we see something that seems central, and about which we must think seriously. Societies, globalization, the process of production, the economic-financial system; the predominant dream and the explicit object of the desire of the great majority is to consume, and to consume without limits. A culture of consumerism has been created and is propagated by the media. We must have the latest models of cell phones, training shoes, and computers. 66% of the Northamerican GNP does not come from production, but from general consumption. British authorities were surprised to learn that, among those who created the disturbances in many cities, were not only the usual foreigners in conflict with each other, but many college students, unemployed, teachers; and even soldiers. They were people enraged because did not have access to consumption. They did not question the consumption paradigm, but questioned the means of excluding them from that paradigm.
In the United Kingdom after Margaret Thatcher, and in the United States after Ronald Reagan, and in the world in general, great social inequality is growing. In the United Kingdom the income of the wealthiest has increased 273 times as much in recent years as that of the poor, according to Carta Maior, of 08/12/2011. Because of that, there is no surprise in the disappointment of the frustrated, who face a «social software» that denies them access to consumption and forces them to confront the cuts in the social budget, 70% of which falls punishingly hard on them: 70% of the youth recreation centers were simply closed.
What is alarming is that neither Prime Minister David Cameron nor the members of the House of Commons took the time to ask themselves the whys of the looting in so many cities. They responded with the worst remedy: more institutional violence. Conservative Cameron said, emphasizing every word: «we will detain the suspects and will publish their faces in the mass media and we could care less about the fictitious worries about human rights». This is the solution of pitiless neo-liberal capitalism: if an order that is unequal and unjust demands it, democracy is annulled, and human rights are ignored. And this happens in the country where the first declarations of the rights of the citizens were born.
If we look carefully, we can see that we are embroiled in a vicious cycle that can destroy us: we need to produce to allow such consumption. Without consumption, enterprises go broke. Resources of nature are needed to produce. These resources are ever more scarce and we have already disposed of 30% more than what the Earth can replace. If we stop extracting, producing, selling and consuming there will be no economic growth. Without annual growth countries fall into recession, generating high rates of unemployment. With unemployment, explosive social chaos erupts, degenerating into all types of conflicts. How can we get out of this trap that we have set for ourselves?
The opposite to consumerism is not non-consumption, but a new «social software» as expressed by political expert Luiz Gonzaga de Souza Lima. That is, we urgently need a new agreement, between a frugal and solidarian consumption, accessible to all, and the limits of nature that must be respected. How to do it? There are several suggestions: the «sustainable way of life» of the Earth Charter, the «good living» of the Andean cultures, founded on the equilibrium human being/Earth, the solidarian economy, the bio-socio-economy, the «natural capitalism» (unfortunate expression) that attempts to integrate the biological cycles in the socio-economic life, and others.
But when the heads of the wealthy States get together, they do not talk about these things. They try to save a system that is leaking everywhere. They know that nature can no longer pay the high price charged by the consumerist model. It is already endangering the survival of life and the future of generations to come. We are ruled by blind and irresponsible leaders, incapable of understanding the consequences of the economic-political-cultural system they defend.
A new global path is imperative, if we want to guarantee our lives and the lives of all other living beings. The scientific-technical civilization that has allowed us exaggerated levels of consumption can ruin that civilization itself, destroying life and degrading the Earth. It is certainly not to such an end that we have reached this point in the process of evolution. We must have the courage and daring to create radical change, if we still have a little of love for ourselves.
Our silent spring
By James Carroll March 21, 2011
WHEN RACHEL Carson entitled her prescient 1962 book “Silent Spring,’’ she was imagining the dawning of the season without the sweet sounds of wildlife. She noted that, even then, in many parts of the United States, spring “comes unheralded by the return of birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of birdsong.’’ Carson’s book was heard as a resounding alarm, jumpstarting the contemporary environmental movement. In important ways, her warning was heeded (restrictions on DDT), but the human assault on the natural world only escalated in the decades since, with last week’s catastrophe in Japan a latest signal of the danger.
“There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.’’ The book begins with what Carson calls a fable for tomorrow. “Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community . . . No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in the stricken world. The people had done it to themselves.’’
As Carson wrote, America’s first commercial nuclear power plant had just come on line (in 1958), and she could hardly have imagined the escalation of risk that took off then. The contaminations of chemical poisons that so worried Carson can seem benign compared to the ruins of radiation, if the worst happens. The Fukushima experience suggests what expert reassurances are worth. More than 500 nuclear power plants are in operation or under construction around the world today, with every one of them being viewed with new skepticism. One chance in a million — such predictions of disaster suddenly seem less of a long shot. What have we done to ourselves?
That more than 10,000 Japanese are likely to have been killed by the natural phenomena of the earthquake and the tsunami relativizes the prospect of far fewer being killed, injured, or sickened by released radiation from the damaged reactors — the expected outcome as of now. But the global anxiety attached to this multivalent catastrophe rises to another level of concern. Alarm is drowning out all the other sounds of spring this week.
The combined destructiveness of the shaken earth, the furious sea, and the nuclear product of industrial technology in Japan is a perfect expression of the perennial tension between nature and human inventiveness. The story of homo sapiens has been a tale of two impulses, at least since the invention of agriculture more than 10,000 years ago.
There is the embrace of nature, even unto cultivation and celebration — the sustenance we take from grown food, the lift of our hearts at birdsong. And there is the crushing of nature for greed, land into property, carbon monoxide into the air, habitual laying waste and moving on.
Ironically, whether out of love for nature or exploitation of it, the broad result of the double-barreled human impulse, as is now apparent, has been the obliteration of climate stability — a problem that transcends all political, economic, and cultural preoccupations. Because it is transcendent, the climate crisis is hard to contemplate, and that is where the news from Japan comes in.
The issue suddenly is not just the radiation danger of commercial nuclear power, but the true and total cost of industrial technology — not only to nature, but to the human future. Whether the reactors at Fukushima go into meltdown or not, the incipient Japanese environmental trauma underscores the way in which the fragile atmosphere of Earth has already begun its meltdown. Could Rachel Carson have imagined Montana’s Glacier National Park without glaciers (as soon as 2020, according to the US Geological Survey), or, for that matter, the polar icecap without ice (NASA predicts ice-free Arctic summers by 2100). Even if we are urgently mobilized, will humans have more long-term success in restoring climate stability than the valiant Japanese technicians and firefighters are having in short-term cooling of the overheating reactors?
That humankind is by nature conscious of itself has led us to imagine that we are above nature — our tragic flaw. Faced this week not only with nature’s capriciousness, but with the deadly consequences of that human flaw, we fall silent. Our silence, for once, echoes the silent spring.
James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.