The Challenge of the 21st Century: Setting the Real Bottom Line

Article excerpt

THE ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT

This year is the 40th anniversary of the publication of a book that for many people--certainly for me--was one of the most influential and important works of the 20th century. In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a book that dealt with pesticides, but could have been equally valid for virtually any modern technology. Carson pointed out that in nature, nothing exists in isolation because everything is connected to everything else. Humans invent powerful technologies and we use them for specific purposes, like DDT to kill insect pests. But because everything is interconnected, there are ramifications throughout the web of life that affect fish, birds and mammals, including human beings. Her book was a global call to action, an eloquent look at the natural world and the impacts that human beings are having on it. Her book galvanized millions of people around the world, including me, into becoming part of the modern environmental movement. Within 10 years the movement had grown to such an extent that the United Nations called the first global environmental conference on the Environment and Development in Stockholm. At Stockholm there were eminent scientists--Paul Ehrlich, Barry Commoner, Barbara Ward, Margaret Mead--who discussed many of the issues that remain familiar to us today: population growth, poverty, species extinction, and toxic pollution.

Awareness Grows

In the years that followed Stockholm we had constant reminders of the impact of humanity on the environment--names like Exxon Valdez, Bhopal and Chernobyl punctuated the steady increase in environmental awareness. And after Stockholm we learned of new phenomena that Rachel Carson and the Stockholm delegates didn't know about. We learned of the immense scale of destruction of tropical rainforests around the world, the acceleration of loss of species as a result of human activity, the overfishing of marine resources, ozone depletion when most of us didn't even know there was such a thing as the ozone layer, global warming and, more recently, the very worrying phenomenon of endocrine disruptors that leach out of plastics and affect sexual development.

Environmental concern had grown to such an extent, that by 1988 a man ran for President of the United States and said, "if you vote for me, I will be an environmental president." He was George Bush and, after being elected, he revealed how shallow promises are when made during the heat of elections. In 1988 Margaret Thatcher was filmed for television picking up litter in London and saying to the camera, "I'm a greenie too." In 1988 Brian Mulroney was re-elected for a second term and, to show his born-again environmentalism, he raised the Minister of the Environment into the inner Cabinet and appointed the biggest star of that election, Lucien Bouchard, to the Ministry of the Environment.

All of that awareness and concern peaked in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. At Rio, the largest number of heads of state in human history assembled to signal a fundamental shift: from that point on, whatever humanity did, the ecological implications would have to be considered. The rallying cry in 1992 was "sustainable development" and at the Earth Summit, Agenda 21, a massive blueprint to get us onto a sustainable path, was signed by most of the leaders at that conference. They also signed Conventions on Biodiversity and Climate that were to be formally ratified in later years.

As if to punctuate the significance of the Earth Summit in Rio, in 1992 the Canadian government finally admitted what fishermen had been warning of for years--the northern cod off Newfoundland were vanishing. This fishery had attracted Europeans for centuries; before Columbus, boats were fishing off the Grand Banks. The entire culture of the province was built on northern cod, and in 1992 the government admitted that they were commercially extinct and called a moratorium. …