A double crisis on planet Earth

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McGill Reporter
April 28, 2004 - Volume 36 Number 15
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 36: 2003-2004 > April 28, 2004 > A double crisis on planet Earth

A double crisis on planet Earth

In the course of alleviating poverty and hunger, will we weaken what remains of Earth's wild nature?

Every day should be International Earth Day, but April 22 was the date officially designated by the United Nations for residents to reflect on the wonders of our planet. Last week, McGill University marked the occasion with thought-provoking lectures by two of the world's foremost authorities on wild nature and human development. On April 22, Steven Sanderson -- president and CEO of the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society -- addressed the burning issue of poverty alleviation and conservation at McGill's prestigious Beatty Lecture. On Monday, April 26, Lord (Robert) May -- President of the Royal Society of London, Professor of Zoology at Oxford University and former Chief Scientific Advisor to the British Government -- spoke on the future of biodiversity in our over-populated world.

Caption follows
Steven Sanderson, president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, at a McGill School of Environment roundtable
Owen Egan

Humans have made incredible advances in the past century. We've reached previously unimaginable milestones in science and technology and witnessed unprecedented development across the planet. Fifty years ago, more than 20 percent of children in developing countries died before their fifth birthday, the figure today is less than 10 percent. The difference in life expectancy between people in the developed and developing worlds has dropped from 26 years to 12 years. Literacy rates have increased, food surpluses have been created and medical science has made great strides to eradicate infectious disease. However, despite these advances, we face a double crisis on planet Earth: human poverty and environmental catastrophe.

We live in a time of material abundance and scarcity, wealth and poverty, conservation and species loss. As Lord May eloquently borrowed from Dickens, "We live in the best of times and the worst of times." Currently, more than one billion people live on less than one dollar a day, and 800 million are hungry. Few can deny that something must be done to alleviate world poverty and hunger. The real question, however, is how to tackle this issue. Much of the development that we have enjoyed over the past century has undoubtedly come at the expense of wild nature.

"Over the past century we have destroyed over half of the world's wetlands and original forests," stated Sanderson during his Beatty Lecture. "Today, three countries in the world -- Brazil, Canada and Russia -- possess 70 percent of the worlds remaining forests, and only 17 percent of the entire terrestrial surface of the Earth remains relatively untouched by humans." Furthermore, according to the conservative estimates of renowned sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, we cause the extinction of an average of 100 species per day.

"We stand on the brink of a global extinction event -- the sixth episode in the history of the Earth," said Lord May. The most recent extinction event, approximately 65 million years ago, closed the Cretaceous period and ended the reign of dinosaurs. "The difference is that the current global extinction event is being caused by the actions of a single dominant species rather than a 'natural' event," said Lord May. We are part of the Earth's great fauna, but we are also its greatest menace.

Too many people cry crocodile tears for global biodiversity loss. It is difficult for some to conceive of the benefits of conservation when global environmental change can occur in the order of centuries. "Many people are also in a state of denial," stated Sanderson. "They believe that environmentalists are extremists and alarmists, but even if we admit to knowing little, we still know enough to be prudent."

For centuries we have attempted to alleviate poverty through growth and development, but this has done little to change the distribution of wealth around the planet. Our development attempts have merely succeeded in damaging our environment. "We have consumed natural resources, turned carnivores into pests and made clean air a relative term," explained Sanderson. "We cannot continue to justify the destruction of our planet as a way to alleviate poverty -- the failures of the past must become the successes of the future."

The Earth's population currently exceeds six billion; by 2050 we will have swollen to over nine billion. According to Sanderson, the issue is more about consumption than population; he referred to the African bush meat trade to emphasize his point. "One to 1.5 million metric tonnes of wild animal meat are extracted from the forests of Central Africa each year," said Sanderson. Although this depletion of wildlife is often blamed on the poor inhabitants of the forest, the meat does not go to feed them. Through the Wildlife Conservation Society, Sanderson followed African bush meat to its final destination -- the chic dinner plates of the foreign exotic food market. "Development of the bush meat trade has done nothing to alleviate poverty in rural Africa," he continued. "These activities simply satisfy the high consumption of the developed world."

Some countries are worse offenders than others. The United States is perhaps the best example of how not to conserve, a fact highlighted by Lord May in his explanation of ecological footprints -- a measure of the impact that certain areas have on their natural resources. North America has the largest ecological footprint on the planet, more than double the sustainable limit. But despite the disproportionately large impact of some regions, the fact remains that the entire developed world is guilty of over consumption. Even some developing countries are over-expending resources due to their tremendous population growth. "If the developing world could reach the standard of living that we enjoy, there would literally be no natural resources left," said Sanderson. "But no one likes to talk about a reduction of consumption in the developed world."

In order to tackle the both poverty and conservation, we need to completely change our attitude -- we are creatures of habit, yet this leopard must learn to change its spots. Education is an important tool in this process. The Wildlife Conservation Society operates five wildlife parks in New York, including the renowned Bronx Zoo. "The parks are completely green," said Sanderson. "We deliver this message to over four million visitors per year and spend approximately $5 million (US) on classroom education programs."

Academics must focus their teaching and research efforts to better reflect a common environmental interest. Much is made of academia's freedom to entertain different views. As Lord May stated, "There's nothing a scientist loves more than to prove another scientist wrong." But this 'lack of unity' on environmental issues has allowed policy-makers and the business world to use conflicting data to their advantage. "Academics are traditionally not the ones with the microphone," said Sanderson, a former university professor who describes himself as a recovering academic. "The intellectual community fails to drive public policy, partly because we have failed to take up a public purpose." It is important for us to deliver information on a more united front before it becomes too late. As the dominant species on this planet, humans are responsible for its management, but this stewardship seems to be slipping through our fingers.

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