Through the history of the Earth, our environment has been an excellent place for promoting life and has fostered a thriving plethora of animal and plant life for billions of years. Of course during much of the life of our planet humans were not in existence.
In a modern society such as ours, we tend to forget the environmental progress we have made through the ages and the fact that pollution is not a new problem. In some respects in some quarters of our planet, environmental quality levels have actually improved enormously. London, for example, in the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century was so heavily polluted from essentially uncontrolled burning that horrible smog episodes with catastrophic consequences were commonplace. Nonetheless, today London’s air quality has dramatically improved.
On the other hand, China’s atmosphere today in many parts of the country averages three times or more of the level of particulate matter deemed safe by the World Health Organization and furthermore more than 40% of China’s rivers are so contaminated that they can only be used for industrial processes.
The problem of environmental protection of our planet as pointed out by the noted former Prime Minister of Norway Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland in her report “Our Common Future” to the United Nations delivered 32 years ago was that “A world in which poverty and inequity are endemic will always be prone to ecological and other crises…Sustainable development requires that societies meet human needs both by increasing productive potential and by ensuring equitable opportunities for all.” This statement is as current today as it was three decades ago.
Environmental degradation results from inefficiency on our use of resources as humans move on the road to development and further as many societies live beyond their means. In 1969, fifty years ago, when we were first able to see the beauty of our planet from the tranquility and the vastness of outer space, we truly can say that the movements to protect our planet began in earnest. A few years later, the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm properly stated humanity’s responsibility for the protection of our planet by declaring that “A point has been reached in history when we must shape our actions throughout the world with a more prudent care for their environmental consequences. Through ignorance or indifference we can do massive and irreversible harm to the earthly environment on which our life and wellbeing depend. Conversely, through fuller knowledge and wiser action we can achieve for ourselves and our posterity a better life in an environment more in keeping with human needs and hopes.”
The environmental movement has been shaped and re-shaped for the past 50+ years sometimes positively and others negatively yet, in many respects, people in the world perceive environmental issues from opposite poles. Many in the developed world view environmental protection as an absolute emergency. They perceive the planet will be destroyed by us humans unless we change our evil and destructive ways. They feel many technologies such as nuclear energy, coal burning or heavy industrial processes must be banned as they deem these technologies unsuitable for the health of our planet.
At the same time, others in business in the developed world, as well as much of the developing countries, view economic growth as the driving tool that can continue humanity on a progressive path despite some adverse environmental consequences as a byproduct. Clearly, this creates conflicting viewpoints that must be addressed if we are to avoid a stalemate.
In addition, environmental issues are now heavily politicized and have become overtly simplified and in some cases distorted depending on specific points of view. Science at both extremes has become in many instances charlatanism. Clearly, we need common sense and an approach that brings people together rather than keeping them freezing in poles apart.
This article and a few to follow are based on my book with Dr. Tapan Munroe titled “Planet in Conflict”. While in the book as well as in this article we did not intend to provide a conclusive treatise on the solution of environmental issues connected with the use of resources such as water and energy. However, in researching and writing about these subjects it is clear that some simple adjustments to environmental protection can pay huge dividends.
The key is first to recognize that environmental protection is inextricably linked to solving the world’s poverty and social inequity problems. Without addressing these, we will not achieve the needed level of environmental care in our planet.
Secondly, we must agree that ultimately to protect our environment we must aim to achieve sustainable development which requires “meeting the economic needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
Thirdly, we must recognize that to protect our planet we must deal with a complex web of environmental issues such as climate change, resource depletion, depletion of fish stocks, desertification, demographic stress, water pollution, safe management of toxic wastes, soil losses, atmospheric pollution, protection of biodiversity and many more. All of these issues affect the direction and speed of economic development. All of these issues must be addressed in a balanced, timely, and cost-efficient way avoiding adverse unintended consequences. We need to take these steps boldly yet gradually in a manner that we save the planet without destroying the economy of the nations in the planet.
Fourth, we must accept that by taking immutable positions such as “Say No to Development”, “Stop Coal Power”, “Not in my Backyard”, etc., we wind up forcing others to take positions that are actually more detrimental to the environment. For example, for many years siting a coal-fired power plant inside California has been essentially impossible. Such a situation in turn has created the development of a plethora of coal-fired plants in adjacent or nearby states for the purpose of selling a great deal of power to California. While that looks attractive, it fosters a great deal of inefficiency given that a vast amount of the energy produced is then lost in transmission requiring the plants to produce much more energy than it would be necessary if the plants were closer to the energy consumers in California. A much better approach would be to recognize that economic development needs to be tied to environmental protection in a sustainable way. Therefore, we need energy production and industrialization that gradually but continually aim to improve the environment through many small changes that in an aggregate form can lead to the needed protection of our planet.
We must recognize that humanity is in conflict and polarization of points of views will lead nowhere. If the naysayers succeed, economic progress stops causing further poverty. If growth is uncontrolled, we will leave an unacceptable environmental and resource depletion legacy to our children and for generations to come.
I prefer to be an optimist recognizing the goodness of the human heart. I believe that by solving through innovative, gradual, and continuous ways the environmental concerns of our planet we can create economic prosperity and environmental well-being. The two extremes can meet at the center and the planet does not need to house the conflicts of opposing poles but instead can benefit from enlightened progress. This is the heart of what I call “Decisional Gradualism” or simply put an approach that involves taking lots of smaller steps and balancing the provision of a good quality of life to humanity while preserving the environment.
For more on our book “Planet in Conflict” by Drs. Raul A. Deju and Tapan Munroe purchase the book in Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers. Here is what a best-selling author is saying about the book
“Transformative breakthroughs are typically interdisciplinary in nature. Deju and Munroe build on this principle beautifully on their book Planet in Conflict”.
-Bill Wiersma author of the acclaimed books “The Power of Professionalism” and “The Power of Identity”.