Friday, November 21, 2008

If we can't breathe, we can't do much else ...

“If human society is to approach sustainability…” there should be “incentives for the world economy to be based on nature’s ‘income’ rather than depletion of its ‘capital’.”
--Murray Gell-Mann, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, in “Visions of a Sustainable World" (1990)

“California has the worst air in the country, and 20 million people living in the dirtiest regions account for billions of dollars a year in economic losses because of premature death, chronic illness, hospitalizations and missed school and workdays.” (The San Francisco Chronicle reporting on a recent study from California State University Fullerton)

“The best estimate of total costs of environmentally attributable childhood diseases in the state of Minnesota is $1.569 billion per year…” (The Price of Pollution)

“A noxious cocktail of soot, smog and toxic chemicals is blotting out the sun, fouling the lungs of millions of people and altering weather patterns … The byproduct of automobiles, slash-and-burn agriculture, cooking on dung or wood fires and coal-fired power plants, these plumes rise over southern Africa, the Amazon basin, and North America.” (The New York Times reporting on a just-released U.N. report)

What’s next – for all of us? Human activities throughout the world, the behavior of the world’s human population, seem to be putting a severe strain on our capacity to have a high quality of life, and possibly to survive at all. I personally do not relish the idea of premature death (a fate for many in California). However, what alternatives do I have to breathing the air?

Most of us have a limited focus day to day. We go to work; maybe we run a business. In the nonprofit world, we teach, we heal. In government, we administer critical services. However, no matter what our major interest or profession, no matter how we choose to contribute to our communities, no matter how small or large the focus of our primary daily attention, we can’t afford to ignore environment trends. We can’t deny the change that has occurred in the quality of the world’s air, water, and land. We can’t pretend that the pollution caused in all parts of the world does not affect everyone throughout the world. We can’t ignore our responsibility to change the behaviors that directly and indirectly contribute to a damaged environment, poorer health for ourselves and our families, higher health care costs, and lowered economic productivity. Our best efforts, no matter how diligent and steadfast will bear no fruit if our planet becomes uninhabitable.

Twin Cities Compass has added environment indicators to make environment information more accessible to all of us and to promote action on our part. I encourage you to look at them. As usual, we have “key measures”, which provide a “tip of the iceberg” indication of how our region is faring; we also have “more measures” which enable you to explore trends and issues in depth.

Two thoughts. First, the environment crisis affects all of us – old, young, wealthy poor, no matter where we live. Wealth can help to mitigate some effects; some regions may have less air or water pollution than do others. However, the U.N. report makes evident the interconnectedness of all parts of the globe. Pollution in Asia affects North America, and vice versa. The life-diminishing shadow of an obscured sun will fall on the rich as well as on the poor.

Second, we all need to change. Curing the problems of the environment will require change by virtually everyone on this planet (other than those few who live exclusively in remote locations using only completely renewable resources). It’s not just those with incomes over $250,000 per year. It’s everyone – high income, middle income, low income, or living in poverty. Everyone has to make decisions within their sphere of influence.

We all need to change our individual behavior and to let our public officials know that we expect them to work on environment issues in ways that will produce results.

So, are you willing to take your lunch in a permanent container, rather than disposing of a paper bag each day? wear a sweater, rather turning up the heat another degree? buy in bulk, to reduce individual packaging? purchase wood products only if the seller can prove that the products do not come from illegally harvested timber?

If a hundred million of us take simple steps like this, it will help push things in the right direction. There’s far more to do, but this is a start.

Wilder Center qualifies as a Gold LEED office building. It makes me proud to contribute to the sustainability of our region and the world at the same time that I’m working directly on social and health initiatives that can improve the quality of life for our region.

The most pessimistic prognosticators feel it’s already to late. We’re doomed. I’m more sanguine – cautiously optimistic that we can turn this around. I hope that you agree and that you have the desire to work on it.

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