The Earth’s best bet in the environmental crisis

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. (CUP) – Unlike most of the conflicts and crises that have affected humankind throughout our existence, the current environmental crisis is a unique, contemporary challenge.
It’s time to re-evaluate – to allow a mind shift to take place, a reappraisal of priorities. Allow me to ask and answer a couple of questions:

Why are we here, in university? To get a good education. Why do we want a good education? To get a good job. Why do we want a good job? To have a good life. And this is the problem as I see it.

The very possibility of life – good or otherwise – hangs in the balance of how we respond to the critical status of nature and the planet.

If our futures in this world are jeopardized by our destruction of the environment and acceleration of climate change, how can anything, for even one minute, be more crucial than how we respond to that?

While an unprecedented volume of damage has been done in and since the 20th century, and many of the world’s current inhabitants won’t live to see the results of our exploitation and devastation, one thing is for sure: we will.

We may not have been the ones to set in motion the collapse of Earth’s ecosystems, but we’re the ones who will have to live – or die – by our ability to rectify the degenerative state of our planetary environment.


Recognizing our responsibilities, taking action

A few weeks ago, I had the fortunate opportunity to participate in a national conference called Impact! The Co-operators Youth Conference for Sustainability Leadership.

This involved 180 students from 60 universities and colleges across the country, gathering together at the University of Guelph, Ontario for four high-energy days of panels, workshops, meetings, group projects, environmental issue focus groups, and presentations.

All participants contributed approximately 25 hours of pre-conference research and preparation throughout the summer, including a customized online course and virtual work groups in which we examined the sustainability practices in sectors such as manufacturing, food systems, and information and communications technology, among others.

The Impact! conference was not a one-way dissemination of information, created for the purpose of educating a massive group of students, informing us of contemporary issues related to environmentalism – rather, we all came already on board, already self-identifying as concerned, enthusiastic, and motivated student leaders and activists.

We are already aware of our urgent responsibilities as the custodians of the Earth and agents of change. The aim was to enhance that awareness, to foster a collaborative network. It was essentially a nation-wide think-tank that connected me with 179 other students just as passionate about the environment and concerned about the future as myself.

Among the highlights of this stimulating and invigorating conference, were the keynote speakers, David Suzuki and Peter Schiefke. Schiefke, national manager of The Climate Project Canada, got his start as an outstanding student leader and activist throughout his undergraduate degree at Concordia in Montreal.

His involvement in creating Youth Action Montreal and the hugely attended 2007 climate change summit “Less Talk, More Action” is responsible for bringing Al Gore and David Suzuki together for the first time.

Suzuki’s keynote address was paramount to setting the tone and building the energy for this conference.

In his signature style, to focus on our humble beginnings and expose the unfathomable way in which we’ve separated ourselves from nature, Suzuki’s speech put in alarming perspective our reliance on the Earth as animals and our duty to respect the Earth and all its other inhabitants, being no more important or entitled than other species.

He has an uncanny knack for jolting us into remembering that humans are an incredibly young species, and that it’s only in a few moments in the history of the Earth – “a flash of evolutionary time” – that we appeared and become the dominant animal on the planet.

“150,000 years ago, no one would have said ‘look out for that naked ape, they’re going to take over the world!” exclaimed Suzuki. “Suddenly we have become so powerful that we are changing the physics and chemistry of the biosphere.”

Suzuki stressed that the people who have caused the problems and set in motion global deterioration won’t live to deal with it, and that it is today’s youth who have the most at stake.
“We’re past the 59th minute, we are living with the illusion that everything is alright . . . we are using up what is your rightful legacy.”

Driving ourselves to extinction

In our limitless progress and advancement, as human beings, we often forget that we are animals – homo sapiens. Just like any other animal, we rely on nature, on the balance and regeneration of forces in the environment, in order to survive.

We have a natural instinct for survival. Somewhere along the way, we forgot that the destruction of the environment – deforestation, water and air pollution, the depletion of non-renewable resources, creation of dead zones in the oceans, endangerment and extinction of species, excessive waste, global warming – threatens our existence, our ability to live and flourish on this Earth, just like any other organism.

The terrifying reality is that once we’ve used, misused, and abused the planet irreparably, drained its resources and altered the chemistry of its atmosphere, we will likely become extinct.
Failing to live sustainably isn’t actually killing the Earth, like we often think – it’s actually killing us. Scientists predict that once we’re gone, the Earth will live on and regenerate itself – there just won’t be any people. We cannot continue at our current rate of consumption. We’re running out of spaces to put people and garbage, out of resources, and out of time.

So, what are we going to do about it?

Rather than be depressed and lethargic about the situation we’re in, the alarming truth should set in motion a newfound commitment to improving the state of the world, and our demands and desires as consumers and inhabitants of the Earth.

There was something extremely inspiring about meeting so many other empowered students and realizing our shared vision. The Impact! conference co-ordinators certainly achieved their goal – everyone came away extremely fired up, motivated, and eager to use this newfound nationwide network.

“The Impact! conference allowed us to come together from universities across the country and share how we are making our campuses sustainable,” said Rohit Mehta, a second-year environmental management student at the University of Toronto, Mississauga. “It also allowed us to meet with industry leaders and experts on an eye-to-eye level, an opportunity that we rarely get as students.”

“The mere fact that we can go back home and communicate with each other on Facebook allows us to continue shaping our projects beyond the conference, and its the creation of this network that will help us as we work on individual action plans.”

“Going to the Impact! Sustainability Conference was a real eye opening experience,” said Eliese Watson, a third-year history student from Calgary.

“This conference made me realize that I was first of all not alone, and second that there is a greater opportunity to make some serious national change,” explained Watson. “The contacts and support I have received from the Impact! conference will change the future events that I create and become apart of.”

Robert Woodrich, a fourth-year communication studies student from the University of Windsor, hopes to keep momentum in his post-conference endeavours.

“As someone who tries to lead whenever possible, I find it extremely helpful to network and share ideas, and it helps that I’ve never attended this type of conference before. Everyone involved was so dedicated and motivated, and my total lack of sleep was not a result of late nights partying, but late nights discussing the urgency of the need for action on climate change.”
Woodrich plans to keep in close contact with several delegates he met at the conference, based on their common goals.

“It certainly didn’t hurt to have had a chance to meet David Suzuki, either,” he said.
While such testimonials are inspiring and encouraging to a concerned student like myself, it still seems mystifying, and wholly counterintuitive, that drastic and immediate measures are not being taken on a global scale, and that it has taken this long, with scientists predicting global warming and noticing the evidence in nature, for people to accept that we’ve been headed toward destruction for a long time, too concerned about the now to remember the future.

Sustainability is precisely that – meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.

I don’t want to live to see the (already occurring) melting of the polar ice caps become so severe that low sea-level cities all around the world end up underwater, resulting in the displacement of millions of people. I don’t want to live to see the oceans’ natural cycles become so disrupted that they become stagnant and mass extinction of aquatic life occurs. I don’t want to live to see the last old-growth forest cut down.

I think, as a species, our instinct for survival is strong, strong enough that we’ll get our act together and try to turn things around.

The thing to remember is, it’s everyone’s responsibility. If you live in this world, you have a duty to take care of it, save it for others, and take action in its protection and restoration right now.

Startling statistics:

  • 90 to 95 per cent of old-growth forests in the United States are gone.
  • The average Canadian puts out about 20 tonnes of carbon per year.
  • The American defence budget is greater than the entire economy of Australia.
  • Canada is among the world’s top 10 producers of greenhouse gases, ranking eighth in the world in absolute greenhouse gas emissions.
  • In North America, we produce enough garbage each day to fill 70,000 garbage trucks. Lined up bumper to bumper, they would stretch halfway to the moon.
  • The average North American uses 600 litres of water a day while the average African makes do with six.
  • 50 to 55 species are becoming extinct every year because of humans.
  • 99.9999 per cent of all species that ever existed are extinct.
  • What could it cost to “replace” nature? What is the cost on the service of purification of the air that trees provide? It would cost $35 trillion to do artificially what nature does for the world for free each year.

Encouraging statistics – how you can reduce carbon emissions:

  • Replace one regular light bulb with a compact fluorescent light bulb and save 150 pounds of carbon dioxide per year.
  • Walk, bike, or take public transit – you’ll save one pound of carbon for every mile you don’t drive.
  • You can save 2,400 pounds of carbon dioxide per year if you recycle half of your household waste.
  • Wash your clothes in cold or warm water instead of hot water and wave 500 pounds of carbon dioxide per year.
  • Plant a tree – a single tree will absorb one tonne of carbon dioxide in its lifetime.

//Zaren White
The Muse (Memorial University of Newfoundland)

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