“Climate change probably represents the biggest threat to human health over the next 10 or 20 years.”
Ashish Jha, Director of the Harvard Global Health Institute.
The term ‘sustainability’ has been bandied around in academic circles and popular culture for decades, possibly to such an extent that it’s simply become another buzzword to be ignored. Google ‘sustainability’ and the Oxford Dictionary will offer the following:
Even the example sentences offered by the trusted source above reflect the contradictions inherent in the way we interpret sustainability and rationalize the consumer choices we make on a daily basis. On the one hand, we want ‘sustainable’ economic growth and all the material goodies it brings. On the other hand, we expect to breathe clean air, drink pure water and be able to build our houses safely on the edge of vast oceans.
Are these two scenarios mutually exclusive? Is it really possible to maintain current Western standards of living without endangering the health of our planet and the very existence of our species?
We Need an Attitude Adjustment
Based on what I’ve read, discussed and witnessed over the past 15 years of traveling and living in rich and poor countries around the world, it’s absurd to think we can continue to use the Earth’s resources at the current rate and not face an enormous backlash from Mother Nature herself. In an arrogant attempt to dominant and control our natural environments, modern mankind has upended nature’s balance in a way that is already leading to more extreme climatic conditions.
I’ve breathed the acrid air in many of China’s cities, both large and small. I’ve witnessed the creation of mega-cities such as Dubai in the Arabian Gulf, filled with glass skyscrapers and indoor ski slopes. Never mind that the climate in the Gulf is one of the world’s most inhospitable. I’ve smelled the stench emitted by vast rivers fouled by raw sewage and garbage. And perhaps most disturbing, I’ve seen vast expanses of the planet’s most biologically diverse rain forest in SE Asia and South America being cleared and turned into palm oil plantations. Not only does deforestation add to global warming, but it also robs us of the medical and scientific knowledge gained by studying the diversity of plant and animal species in these biological hot spots.
“Oh,” but you may say, “my town/city isn’t like that.” This is an example of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ consumption where one’s garbage is shipped to other cities, states or countries. At the beginning of 2018, China’s 25-year acceptance of the West’s plastic waste ended. Where is the plastic waste from your city/town going now? Is it being recycled or going into a landfill site?
As an American, it’s my duty to call-out both myself and my fellow citizens on our wasteful lifestyles and seeming indifference toward our collective impact on the health of our planet. The extreme nature of a consumption-oriented lifestyle is the polar opposite of living in a sustainable way.
After all, it’s our current President who withdrew from the Paris Climate Accords. “It unfairly punishes the USA and it’s economy,” he’s said repeatedly.
How unfair is it that the USA and it’s citizens have consumed far more than our fair share of the world’s resources for more than a century? There’s no free lunch is a refrain I’ve heard many times.
In a recent article on sustainability, Scientific American reported that:
“A child born in the United States will create thirteen times as much ecological damage over the course of his or her lifetime than a child born in Brazil. The average American will drain as many resources as 35 natives of India and consume 53 times more goods and services than someone from China. With less than 5 percent of world population, the U.S. uses one-third of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum, and 19 percent of the copper. Our per capita use of energy, metals, minerals, forest products, fish, grains, meat, and even fresh water dwarfs that of people living in the developing world.”
David Tilford–Sierra Club
Our Mother is already rebelling
Even though there’s conclusive evidence (of the scientific kind that we once respected) that humanity’s resource consumption is accelerating our planet’s warming–which is in turn melting ice sheets that are raising sea levels around the world–we seem either unable or unwilling to reduce our hedonistic appetites for more of everything. ‘Bigger is better’ has been America’s mantra for far too long and we’re reaping the effects of such negligent attitudes via rising sea levels which are gradually flooding low-lying cities world-wide.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “In 2014, global sea level was 2.6 inches above the 1993 average—the highest annual average in the satellite record (1993-present). Sea level continues to rise at a rate of about one-eighth of an inch per year.”
With continued ocean and atmospheric warming, sea levels will likely rise for many centuries at rates higher than that of the current century. In the United States, almost 40 percent of the population lives in relatively high-population-density coastal areas, where sea level plays a role in flooding, shoreline erosion, and hazards from storms. Globally, eight of the world’s 10 largest cities are near a coast, according to the U.N. Atlas of the Oceans.
On a macro level, the rise in sea level across the planet is producing more destructive tropical storms that increase flooding and storm surge. On a micro level, cities such as Miami are already trying to cope with the flooding that comes from cyclical changes in sea level such as high tides.
Floods are incredibly destructive forces that affect people’s lives in multiple ways: they destroy homes, break up neighborhoods and shut down businesses and livelihoods. In addition, diseases breed in fetid flood waters tainted by human and animal waste mixed with agricultural chemicals. Do we care if the things we’re doing on a daily basis are increasing the likelihood of such major destructive events?
Warning from the IPCC
While America’s leaders have been busy denying mankind’s role in global warming, the world’s most respected scientists have continued their investigation. The scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), after three years of research and a week of negotiations at a meeting in South Korea, have issued a sobering special report on the impact of global warming of 1.5C.
Professor Jim Skea, who co-chairs the IPCC, stated that “limiting warming to 1.5C brings a lot of benefits compared with limiting it to two degrees. It really reduces the impacts of climate change in very important ways.” Limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels was agreed at the Paris Climate Accords in December 2015.
The IPCC report warns that warming above 1.5C risks crossing many of Earth’s tipping points. For more in-depth information on these tipping points, follow this link to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
‘Where do I start’ you may ask
We can start by making small changes in our daily lives and then upping the ante gradually, but we all need to start making those small changes now. Just like New Year’s resolutions, it’s far too easy to put off making lifestyle changes, especially when we perceive the changes to be painful in some way.
First of all, we can continue to reduce, reuse and recycle the packaging that contains the things we must consume. Secondly, before making a purchase, ask yourself “Do I really need this or am I just buying it because shopping has become habitual?” Remember that asking this basic question is also a good way to save money, the one commodity that many Americans find in short supply in these days of rising housing costs. And remember to support businesses that are actively working to reduce waste.
Further, ask “Do my children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews etc really need this or that?” We’ve been brainwashed by an advertising industry and corporations that want us to believe we’re somehow not being good parents and grandparents if we don’t indulge children by constantly buying them more toys, clothes and other disposable items that will probably only hold their attention for a matter of seconds. With so many broken and dysfunctional families in the USA, I’d say love and security is what children are most lacking these days, not material possessions.
Drive less and walk or bike more
While some of my closest American and Omani friends have lamented my attacks on the wasteful (and unhealthy) nature of car culture—responsible for harmful pollution, emotional isolation, and sprawling development patterns–it’s time for us all to carefully consider our relationship with the environment and to decide whether we want to be part of the problem or part of the solution toward creating a healthier planet.
I made a conscious decision to live in a place where car ownership is unnecessary. I either walk or take buses to do my daily shopping and other errands. Interacting with people I would otherwise avoid has multiple benefits as does getting regular aerobic exercise as I navigate the hilly terrain in the town where I live. For me, living without a car is a joy and simply feels natural.
Consider living in a smaller house
The tiny house movement has gained some momentum over the past decade, but in general, Americans are living in larger, more spacious houses than ever before, and this despite the fact that family size has been declining for the past several decades. Besides the extra materials used in the construction process, large houses are hard to heat and cool which requires using more gas, oil, electricity or another energy resource.
For my part, I’ve chosen to live in a small apartment in a region of the world where I don’t need to use energy for heating or cooling. My favorite thing about living in such a climate is being able to open the windows and receive a fresh air cleansing each day. I believe this is a much healthier environment in which to live than the hermetically sealed and climate controlled spaces many of my American friends and family call home.
Adopt a ‘flexitarian’ diet
I’ve been a vegetarian since 1990, and while I’m not preaching that it’s everyone’s duty to totally stop eating meat and other animal products, a new study on how food production and consumption impact major threats to the planet suggests that plant-based diets are the best option. Scientists have concluded that at least cutting back on meat consumption is the only way we will be able to feed growing populations by 2050.
“We can eat a range of healthy diets but what they all have in common, according to the latest scientific evidence, is that they are all relatively plant based,” said the study’s lead author Dr Marco Springmann from the University of Oxford. The flexitarian diet used in the researchers conservative model allowed only one serving of red meat per week.
In addition, it’s important to try to buy locally grown products which are not only fresher but come with the added environmental benefits of reduced transport congestion and energy consumption.
Economies and jobs
While making changes to our patterns of consumption and diets would have far-reaching impacts on major industries and jobs, we have few choices left at this point. Imagine multiplying many times over the billions of dollars being spent on rebuilding following the recent ‘natural’ disasters produced by Hurricanes Florence and Michael in the southeastern USA. Pay now or pay more later. It’s up to us.
We must let our government leaders know that we expect them to eliminate waste (and oh my, there is SO much waste in Washington DC) and work in good faith with other countries to limit the causes of a warming climate. Our national leaders need to wake up and see that global warming is one of our most pressing national security issues.
As environments become ever more degraded in the developing world, rich countries such as the USA will see growing waves of immigrants at our borders seeking to escape such conditions. With much of America’s national dialogue focused on immigration issues currently, we’d do well to heed the warnings of the scientific community before reaching the point of no return. A future of water scarcity, famine, collapsing economies and violence resulting from battles over too few resources is the kind of future we should seek to avoid.
The actions I’m taking on a personal level are an effort to compensate for the large carbon footprint I’ve left on the environment due to far too many flights while traveling and living abroad. Although traveling is part of my job, I’m making adjustments to limit flying as much as possible.
As a collective species, it’s time for us to exhibit our intelligence by reining in our consumer impulses. We must not let guilt or the immensity of the task overwhelm and paralyze us, preventing us from taking action. Today is the day for us all to begin making the kinds of changes we must make if our children and grandchildren are to be left with an inhabitable planet.