Archive for April 12th, 2004

Working Together

Monday, April 12th, 2004

Reposted from the World Resources Institute.


Time for a Change

Jonathan Lash

Despite two decades of international environmental agreements, and great progress in controlling local pollution in some parts of the world, the data show that the health of the natural systems that sustain us — oceans, the atmosphere, rivers, wetlands — is declining. Failed international commitments to address global environmental problems have engendered growing cynicism and diminished hope.

The threats are real and urgent, but history suggests that the potential for change is real as well.

Imagine it is a hundred years ago: 1904. The first automobiles are being sold; the Wright brothers fly at Kitty Hawk; a wire is laid down across the Atlantic. New technologies are reshaping the world.

But reading an electronically distributed document like this is unimaginable. People and communities are isolated. Most of the world is under the influence of a handful of colonial powers. Racial and cultural segregation is the norm. For the most part, women cannot vote.

The world’s first national parks have recently been created. However, most people believe that nature is inexhaustible, and that wilderness unconquered is wasted. In The United States, there is no national legislation and no national park service to protect newly created Yellowstone and Yosemite parks.

These things changed.

Now imagine it is 50 years later. 1954. Around the world colonial influence is fading. Gandhi has reshaped the globe using non-violent resistance. Women have the right to vote in most countries, but remain largely absent from the political, business, and scientific spheres of life. Across the industrial world, people smoke in meetings, at meals, in planes and trains.

Industrialization and new technologies have more than doubled global GDP, but black soot now coats buildings, streets, and lungs in New York, London, and Tokyo. Cities, factories, and cars release pollution untreated into the air and water. Every coastal city pipes its wastes, untreated, into the oceans.

In the United States, the de facto Apartheid that prevails is at last declared illegal, and in a few years a young black minister will emerge as one of the most powerful voices of moral leadership in the country’s history, enlisting blacks and whites in a peaceful crusade for civil rights. Martin Luther King, his strategy shaped by Gandhi, creates a campaign of demonstrations and civil disobedience that for the first time uses the power of television to conduct moral education from the streets.

A few decades later Earth Day launches another set of extraordinary changes. Aroused by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and by what they can see, taste, and smell, people take to the streets, parks, podiums, and pulpits to demand changes in law and behavior to protect the air, water, and land.

Now here we are in 2004. Women are gaining more parity than ever before. In many countries smoking in public spaces is now uncommon, and no one believes that cigarettes are benign. Environmental stewardship is an accepted, if inconsistently practiced value.

The work of change is around us constantly. And the changes that have come to pass are not accidental. In fact there are a number of common elements driving each of the changes that I described.

Change often requires a catalyzing event, a shift in conditions, or an advance in public understanding. Think of the gains made by women’s suffrage due to the growth of the middle class and the demands of the first World War.

Another key element is the emergence of strong leadership, from both civil society and from political figures like Gandhi, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Martin Luther King.

Finally, systemic change requires years and years of hard work, integration, and alignment. It took decades for legal recognition of civil rights, women’s rights, and the obligation of environmental stewardship to be implemented in any significant way, and ultimately to become predominant values.

The bedrock of consensus builds slowly?or does it? The process of change seems to be getting compressed in the global era. As powerful as the globalization of markets has been, the globalization of information may ultimately have the greater impact on our world. Information and ideas flow frictionlessly around the earth in an increasing torrent overwhelming the significance of borders as barriers and diminishing the capacity of governments to control events.

We have effectively addressed many of the immediate and obvious problems, those that people could see, touch, smell, and understand. What we are left with are the large-scale, long-term threats of essentially irreversible harm — extinction, destruction of ecosystems, climate change. Threats that are the consequences of fundamental alterations human activity are causing in the carbon, nitrogen and hydrologic cycles, and the composition of the Earth’s biota.

One can neither comprehend nor respond to problems on this scale by responding to his immediate place and time. Change requires a shift in perspective and values: A comprehension of systemic rather than anecdotal problems; A sense of responsibility to the future as well as a stake in the present; A commitment to global engagement.

But this kind of change is no more profound than the shift in attitudes towards wilderness that occurred 100 years ago. And just like 100 years ago, this kind of adaptive change of values and understanding is the job of our leaders. It is the job of truth tellers and of open minds. It requires vision, courage and tenacity.

(c) Copyright 2004 World Resouces Institute