“Respecting the Environment for a Sustainable and Peaceful Future”
Environmental threats to peace and sustainability
- It gives me great pleasure to be here addressing this conference on the important topic of ‘Respecting the Environment for a Sustainable and Peaceful Future’. The focus of this conference is very timely, as the threats presented by our evident failure to respect the environment properly are becoming increasingly apparent. It is becoming abundantly clear that we are currently not doing enough to respect the environment in such a way as to ensure a sustainable and peaceful future. The negative impact of climate change and environmental degradation can be seen in the devastating floods, droughts and typhoons that are occurring with increasing frequency and intensity around the world. Weather patterns and other factors beyond human control are undoubtedly part of the cause, but the unprecedented severity of current events is undoubtedly also due to the impact of human activity. This is why the current era is now increasingly being referred to as the Anthropocene Age, which is characterized by significant and unprecedented impact of human activities on the planet.
- The wildfires raging currently in California, for example, are threatening around 80,000 households, while flooding in Missouri, landslides in southern China, and an earthquake of 5.9 on the Richter scale in north-eastern Australia have all being reported on the news only during this past week. The extent of human suffering caused by such events is immense. Moreover, the devastating impact of such events are felt long afterwards among all survivors and victims, whether of a forest fire in relatively comfortable California, or a hurricane in the far poorer and more vulnerable Philippines. The experiences of these most direct victims of environmental disasters, of which the numbers are increasing, are very far from the sustainable and peaceful future to which we all aspire.
- In addition to its role in these extreme climate events, our current disrespect for the environment is also contributing to the growing scarcity of our most valuable resources. The intensifying competition for these scarce resources then represents another major threat to our peaceful and sustainable future. These include the oil, coal and other fossil fuels which we are using up at an alarming rate. Competition over these non-renewable sources of energy is already generating conflict in some parts of the world. This reflects the prioritization by some of financial gain over the broader public benefits that could be generated through a more sustainable approach to these scarce resources. The growing scarcity of water resources presents another potentially serious threat to peace. This issue is seen by some as likely to be the main source of conflict in the coming decades. The rapid depletion of our global biodiversity is a further area in which our sustainable and peaceful future is being dangerously undermined. This carries a cost that we can’t even calculate, as the total number of undiscovered species, their properties, and their potential uses are all unknown. The failure to respond more effectively than at present to the environmental degradation resulting from climate change is now the biggest threat that we face, according to the Global Peace Index.
- The scale of the threats that these environmental challenges present may make some people feel disempowered. Many prefer to wait for their government or the international community to take action. Luckily, there are many others, including those of you here attending this conference, who take a different approach. Those who respond with constructive action to address these challenges include, of course, the environmental activists and campaigners themselves who spearhead these efforts, whether at the global level or working at more local levels. They also include the researchers, scientists and policy-makers who play such an important role generating greater understanding of environmental issues, and designing and implementing solutions. There are also growing numbers of ‘green-collar workers’ in the ever-increasing industrial and commercial activities associated with the green economy.
- All of these individuals are working tirelessly in various ways to develop the new approaches that are so urgently needed. They include indigenous peoples around the world, who are attempting to protect their way of life and resources from the encroachments of the modern industrialized world. There are also the officials and administrators in cities, towns and communities around the world, working to reduce their own environmental footprints. Environmentally conscious individuals are also increasingly numerous in the corporate and commercial worlds, where ‘green’ trends in green design and sustainability are gathering force. The variety of action involved encompasses everything from reducing the use of plastic bags, to restoring polluted waterways, preserving endangered species and promoting a return to locally grown food and organic agriculture.
- Women, of course play, a major role in all these various efforts to promote greater respect for the environment. This is as leaders and activists, in all areas of the emerging green society and economy, and as individuals in their personal lives. This latter aspect includes women’s roles as housekeepers, often with primary responsibility for many of the consumption and waste-disposal choices that shape individual environmental footprints. In this regard, effective education is key to implementing the recycling goals that form an integral part of energy reduction strategies. Women also play crucially important roles as mothers, with the responsibility of raising the next generation to be responsible consumers, with a greatly reduced environmental footprint compared to that of present generations. The particular responsibilities of women are reflected in the welcome focus of some of the sessions at this conference, on the role of women’s organizations in increasing respect for the environment, and on ways to mobilize resources to help this process.
- The groups and individuals that make up this evolving environmental movement are disparate and uncoordinated. Many involved do share common goals and motives, however, with the same fundamental objective of limiting further climate change and mitigating the impact of the environmental degradation that it causes. As well as this shared vision, many also share a similar analysis both of the causes of the environmental challenges that we face, and of the necessary responses and potential solutions. These are numerous and highly varied, but generally avoid prescriptive and top-down approaches. They rely instead on flexible and organic frameworks, driven by local conditions and priorities.
- This commonality of purpose and even understanding among so many disparate groups may reflect the existence of some sense of natural justice underlying the current surge in environmental activism. This concept was first suggested by 19th century thinkers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, who clearly perceived the inter-connectedness of humans with nature, and the natural order and justice that is found in both worlds. Emerson’s writings inspired Henry David Thoreau, who believed that individuals must themselves take action if their sense of justice is violated. Thoreau famously commented that ‘however small an action may be, if it is done well, it is done forever.’ This idea of the power of individual actions, driven by one’s own conscience, was taken up in turn by Gandhi, Martin Luther King and others, with powerful results. Although we face a different set of challenges today, these appear as daunting and insurmountable as those faced by these visionaries. The ability of the combined power of the individual actions they inspired to confront the full force of British colonialism in India, and the bitter legacy of slavery in the United States, should serve as inspiration for us, as we attempt to address the intractable problems of our era.
- Among the inspirational individuals who are playing leading roles today as environmental visionaries and activists are many outstanding women who work in a wide variety of ways. These include Kenyan activist and Nobel Laureate, Wangari Maathai, whose work demonstrated directly the powerful impact of many individual acts serving a single purpose – in her case, the act of planting trees. They also include American author Rachael Carson, whose seminal work, ‘The Silent Spring’, was the first to link environmental degradation, in this case due to pesticide use, directly to public health risks. Carson is regarded by many as the ‘mother of ecology’. The work of Indian scientist and activist Sumita Dasgupta aims to provide practical solutions to local environmental problems, through the restoration of traditional rainwater harvesting systems in drought-afflicted Gujarat. Others work to raise awareness in different ways, such as Shi Lihong, founder of Wild China, whose films document the impact of dam building on those displaced by them. Jane Goodall is another outstanding female environmentalist whose work has made an immense contribution by promoting greater respect for and understanding of other animals. All these women have achieved important impacts, both through their own direct actions and through the inspiration they have provided to others to make their own commitment to respect the environment.
- Some observers are pointing to what could be termed a ‘coalescence’ of these groups and individual activists into a more coherent movement. This process is being driven by a greater sense of urgency, as the impact of environmental degradation intensifies. But there also seems to be a growing sense that preventative and restorative actions are now possible to a greater extent than in the past. This progress towards greater convergence is in part facilitated by the growing inter-connectedness of the world. It also reflects the coincidence of views among those involved as mentioned. One estimate suggests that this emerging movement encompasses as many as one to two million people, all working directly on environmental and social justice issues. The fact that so many people globally are working towards similar goals, motivated by a similar sense of natural justice, itself offers some cause for optimism. As one long-term activist put it, ‘this unstoppable movement to reimagine our relationship to the environment and one another’, should ‘inspire and delight any and all who despair of the world’s fate’.
- The momentum that seems to be gathering around this nascent movement can be seen in the unprecedented progress made at the 21st United Nations Climate Change Conference. At this Conference of Parties,, held in Paris in December 2015, agreement was reached between 195 nations on the adoption of legally binding national targets for emissions reductions. These Nationally Determined Contributions vary according to circumstances, with Malaysia, for example, having made a commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 45% of GDP by 2030. Together, these national level actions will contribute towards the relatively ambitious long-term goal set out in the agreement which is to keep future rises in global temperatures below the 2 degrees generally identified as a key danger point.
- Many doubt that these commitments will be sufficient even to stall, let alone reverse, processes of global warming. Securing their implementation then represents an even greater challenge. But the agreement does represent significant and, as mentioned, unprecedented global progress. It was not long ago that even the term “sustainability” was controversial, banned from use by Exxon Mobil and others in their company publications. It now lies right at the heart of global development agendas, as with the United Nations Sustainability Development Goals. The relative success of the Paris Conference of Parties reflects the fact that there is now almost universal acceptance of the scale of the environmental problems we face and the threats that they pose. It also highlights the growing consensus on some of the response strategies that are necessary.
- Implementation of these various measures will take place very slowly and incrementally, with the broader goals only being met through a gradual accumulation of impact from the various actions being taken right across the globe. Current efforts are focused on putting into place the national legislative and policy frameworks necessary for the fulfillment of the commitments that have been made. The actions required to achieve these targets will then trickle down to regional, local, community and even individual levels. Behavioural changes at these levels, and the daily choices that we all make as individuals, are thus absolutely crucial to the achievement of the ambitious national and global targets.
- Where global and national commitments have been lacking in the past, important initiatives at these other levels have already resulted in significant progress. There are some interesting examples of this in the United States and Canada, both represented here at the conference. The relatively advanced environmental practices of these countries have some useful lessons for others. In the Pacific North West, for example, the unifying concept of ‘Salmon Nation’ has helped to galvanize environmental action by focusing attention on the beauty of the iconic fish and its natural habitat in this region. One important initiative that has resulted is the protection of the Kitlope National Park in Canadian British Columbia. Over 400,000 hectares of forest has been protected here, in partnership with the indigenous people of the Haisla Nation. The women of the Haisla Nation have played a key role in this process, helping ensure the conservation of the region’s immense cultural and natural value. Their organization, the Haisla Nation’s Women Society Rediscovery Program, focuses on engaging youth as a key mechanism to achieve these protection goals.
- Some of the major cities in this region are also world leaders in innovative environmental policies. San Francisco, for example, is a leading recycler globally, with as much as 80% of its waste recycled, and landfill use less than half what it used to be. Portland in Oregon achieves an impressive rate of nearly 60% recycling and recovery of the waste it generates. Cities play a key role in energy reduction efforts more broadly, the importance of which is only increasing with greater urbanization. Their full involvement is thus absolutely crucial to the achievement of national environmental goals. There are also sound economic incentives for local authorities to adopt policies aimed at recycling waste and reducing energy usage. Amounts earned from recycling vary considerably, depending on the quality of sorting and market prices for the products. But further developments in the green economy will support these efforts and vice versa.
- Regions with ground-breaking policies such as the Pacific North West serve as laboratories for testing various alternative approaches to environmental protection and climate change mitigation. They also serve as an example of what is possible for countries with more limited recycling programmes such as here in Malaysia. Effective policies here and elsewhere have evolved through trial and error, and continue to develop and adapt. They also have deep historical roots. The enlightened approach to environmentalism in San Francisco, for example, can be traced back over a century to the concerted actions of an individual. Another female environmental activist, Society matron, Mrs. Lowell-White, presented a petition with 1.5m signatures to then President Teddy Roosevelt calling for action to save California’s Redwoods. Individual actions such as this led to the birth of the modern environmental movement in the establishment of America’s national parks. Some of the individuals who cut their teeth promoting the protection of America’s magnificent wild areas then went on to found key global environmental organizations. Others are still active in local efforts such as those described in the Pacific North-West. The considerable progress already made in this region towards energy reduction, recycling and conservation goals, highlights again the power of individual actions to promote broader change.
- Other important efforts to reduce environmental footprints are taking place in poorer settings in developing countries, including those of the female environmentalists mentioned above and many many others. One key initiative involves the provision of cleaner cooking stoves to women in developing countries, with highly positive impacts both at the personal level and on the environment more broadly. The distribution of solar stoves in refugee communities in Africa, for example, is credited with a number of improvements in the lives of women and girls. These include reduced security risks from not having to collect firewood in dangerous locations, improved health from not inhaling dirty cooking smoke, and also more time to spend on more productive occupations. Cleaner cooking stoves have been provided to hundreds of thousands of women as part of many similar projects, ably coordinated by the Global Alliance for Clean Cook Stoves. The overall reduction in the use of non-renewable energy sources that has been achieved as a result, highlights again the way in which many small actions contribute towards a bigger goal.
Ladies and Gentlemen
- Just as the tragedy of the global commons has arisen from the unintended impact of countless individual actions, our actions equally have the power to limit further degradation and repair the damage already done. The small steps taken by us all towards environmental awareness and protection as we go about our daily lives, can and do add up to a greater whole. This arises in part from the broader inspiration generated by the brave acts of individual activists and visionaries. It also derives from the very localized steps that we take in our own personal lives – to reduce our own environmental footprint, educate our children to be responsible consumers, and to set an example to those around us. In these ways we can all play a powerful role in protecting the environment and contribute to making real the global and national commitments that have now been set out.
- So as you consider the urgent issues that this conference addresses and participate in the sessions on how to approach these challenges, do reflect on the power of individual actions to change the world. From Gandhi and Martin Luther King to Rachael Carson and Wangari Maathai, the actions of individuals, driven by their own consciences and a sense of natural justice being violated, have had an immense impact. Many of us now share this sense of injustice in relation to the environmental damage being perpetrated by the human race. But rather than leaving us helpless and frustrated in the face of intractable challenges, this deepening concern can also galvanize us into taking the small actions that together contribute to achieving the changes that are so necessary to save our planet.